By Alper Ali Riza
The truth is a conversation about the nature of federal government and its suitability for a small island divided by ethnic conflict has been a long time coming. Most people have a vague idea about the nature of federal government but have not been encouraged to think of being under a federal umbrella.
According to the late professor Kenneth Wheare of Oxford University ‘federal government is appropriate for communities if, at one and the same time, they desire to be united under a single independent general government for some purposes and to be organised as independent regional governments for others.’
But that is not the starting point. Cyprus handed over huge chunks of sovereign power to the EU when she joined in 2004 so any conversation on the desirability of going down the federal route is concerned only with the distribution of sovereignty that was left over.
The transfer of sovereign power to the EU occurred through the application of two principles developed by the European Court of Justice to help achieve an ever closer political union. They are those of the supremacy and direct effect of EU law. Unlike Britain that is leaving the EU to reclaim her sovereignty, Cyprus wishes to mould EU sovereign power to help her reintegrate her divided self.
So far as one can tell, the two communities in Cyprus accept that whatever federal solution they adopt would be subject to EU law adapted to suit Cyprus’ present semi-detached status. Be that as it may the requisite desire of both core communities to be part of a general federal government does not come naturally to Cypriots for the obvious reason that the two regions have come about as a result of ethnic conflict. So the dual desire and ability to operate a federal system would need to be cultivated in people.
The factors normally associated with a desire to unite under an independent federal government are security, prosperity, and similarity in political and social institutions.
For Greek Cypriots a federal system could be made desirable if it means the departure of Turkish troops at present in northern Cyprus and the return of enough land and property to make it worth their while – as much psychologically as geographically.
For Turkish Cypriots security lies in the fact that they are now all concentrated in one area rather than in small enclaves spread across the island. The Turkish side attaches huge importance to remaining the core community in northern Cyprus with guarantees that any federal solution will not be breached before the ink is dry as happened in the past.
It is, however, unwise by treaty to sub-contract security to another state. The UN Charter permits the use of force by states in self defence or defence of another. It is a principle derived from customary international law and there is no reason to suppose that it precludes defence of kith and kin. So the present right to unilateral intervention given to the motherlands would be obsolete if each constituent state were to reserve the right to request international assistance.
There would need to be safeguards to make sure the exercise of such a right can only be invoked as a last resort, but otherwise this may be a way round the zero guarantees impasse. It is no good pretending that such a facility would be inconsistent with being a modern European state as some people argue. Scratch the surface and European states can turn as nasty as they did many times last century. So a precautionary right to request international assistance in extremis would be reassuring to both communities in a federation loose enough to allow it.
It is obvious that both communities will be better off if Cyprus becomes a federation in place of the present ridiculous state of affairs. Military expenditure will be reduced, releasing millions at present wasted on arms and kickbacks that could be used to set up a national health service. An excellent idea that will do more to reintegrate Cyprus than the purchase of military hardware ever could.
It is said that the gas deposits in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone is an economic reason in favour of a solution. The discovery of gas deposits has never been a harbinger of peace but of war in the Middle East. In any case gas deposits far out at sea are difficult to defend by a small country like Cyprus and building fair weather alliances to do so is folly.
Better to get a loose federation up and running without further delay and share the gas with the EU in exchange for keeping Cyprus secure with a versatile sophisticated economy, a national health service and an integrated railway network to bring people close, rather than becoming the Abu Dhabi of the eastern Mediterranean.
In a federation the distribution of wealth equitably between the constituent states and the federal government is crucial. The bigger, wealthier state will tend to dominate, but checks and balances can ensure that any imbalances that flow naturally from differences in size and wealth are kept to a minimum.
The attachment by each community to its ethnicity is far too strong and will need to be diluted and replaced by an attachment to the federal republic. Cultivating a desire to form a federation, however, is not enough. The ability to make it work is also essential.
Obviously a common language would be very helpful. English is widely spoken and studied in Cyprus and both communities often regard it as their language of choice. The chances of operating a federal system would improve enormously if English were reinstated as the third official language.
Both sides have the common law so there should be no problem in assimilating their legal systems. But the biggest and most cohesive institution the two sides will have once a federal system is established is the European legal mechanism and the expertise that it can provide on the workings of a federal constitution. Implementing the EU legal order would probably be a shared task and few problems are likely as EU institutions supervise compliance.
Creating the right conditions for setting up a federation that works will require leadership. The difficulty initially is going to be the availability of committed federalists with the expertise to make a federal system work. It will be necessary for a cadre of high-flying civil servants from each constituent state to be trained together and develop an esprit de corps with a commitment to the federal cause.
As there are no committed federalists around at present federal power will have to be confined within a very narrow compass at the hub and reflect principles that derive from the way a loose federation like the EU works. The principles of conferral, subsidiarity and proportionality are federal principles of general application that can be used to ensure that action taken outside these few vital areas can only be done if the objective cannot be sufficiently achieved locally but going no further than is necessary to achieve the objective in hand.
That is the essence of a loose federation. A term I prefer to decentralised federation because the Greek word for loose – halari – also means comfortable and relaxed – one that people can slip into without even noticing.
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part-time judge