Until recently, complaints about the Green Line regulations, trade with the north and the free movement of people were the domain of the extremist and pro-partition camps, members of which had even called for the closing of all crossing points. Although a closing of the checkpoints was a demand of the fringe, it is now seems to be entering the mainstream.
On Wednesday the trade unions federation Sek, which does not usually become involved in the politics of the Cyprus problem, issued an announcement warning that trade across the dividing line was ‘reaching worrying proportions’, and demanded a review of the Green Line regulations introduced by the EU in 2004. Something is not working properly and there ‘is a form of underground economy operating at the expense of a legitimate economy’ said the union, conspiratorially adding that ‘consumers and many companies are victims of unfair competition from dubious quality products of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot origin’.
Sek, also citing the purchase of building materials from the north by contractors, appears to have joined the campaign against any form of transaction with the other side that has been waged by Phileleftheros newspaper for years now. The paper regularly carries indignant articles about the availability of agricultural produce from the north, claiming that Greek Cypriot farmers are suffering because prices for tomatoes, potatoes etc are being pushed down. It also claims the produce is imported from Turkey but deceitfully labelled Cypriot by the Turkish Cypriot chamber of commerce. There was also the case, a few years ago, of ‘Turkish fish, christened Turkish Cypriot’ and sold in the south.
Some 10 days ago, the same newspaper carried a front-page story claiming, without offering anything resembling evidence, that transport companies were allegedly sending their fleets of cars to the north to be filled up with petrol which was much cheaper there. Sek included this in Wednesday’s announcement, lamenting the fact that the ‘state is being deprived of millions in fuel tax losses’. Astonishingly, the union, like the newspaper, did not see the need to provide a shred of evidence to support its claims and conveniently ignored the fact that drivers are breaking no law by filling their cars with petrol in the north. Small quantities of petrol are seized at the checkpoints, but this does not translate to millions in tax losses for the state.
The campaigners against dealings between north and south are more concerned with creating a negative climate that might lead to the closure of the checkpoints and are therefore not too concerned about facts. For instance, Phileleftheros whenever JCC – the company dealing with credit card payments – issues data disapprovingly informs its readers how much Greek Cypriots spent in hotels, restaurants and shops in the north and Turkey. Yet the reality is that Turkish Cypriots, according to figures released by JCC, spend much more in the south than Greek Cypriots spend in the north. From January to November 2017, the amount of purchases with the use of Turkish cards processed by JCC was €23.7 million in the Republic while, for the same period, total spending by local cards in the occupied area was only €8.3m.
Meanwhile, Edek leader Marinos Sizopoulos, who last week boasted he had warned when the checkpoints opened in 2003 about the harm this would cause, is now campaigning against the opening of the checkpoint in Dherynia. He is backing the Famagusta district restaurateurs and bar owners who are patriotically complaining this will affect their businesses as tourists will visit the north more frequently.
Competition is the main reason for the campaigns against trade between the two sides – farmers do not want cheaper produce, bar and restaurant owners do not want people taking their custom north and manufacturers do not want the prices they charge to be undercut by manufacturers in the north. There there is another reason for the demonising of trade. There is a section of the Greek Cypriot population that wants the complete separation of the two sides, which will only be achieved by the closing of the checkpoints, and the ‘building of a wall’. Some rejectionist politicians who fear that too much contact between the two sides could affect their partitionist agenda have raised this possibility but failed to win any public support.
The truth is that even if partition is the favoured solution to the Cyprus problem, we should still strive for good neighbourly relations, easy movement between the two sides and trade, irrespective of whether this affects some business interests. Good relations, built on easy access to the other side and expanding trade, are the only guarantee of long-term security, because Unficyp will not be here forever to guard the dividing line.