DURING his short visit to Cyprus last week, France’s President Emmanuel Macron described Cyprus as “a strategic point on an aeronautical level for France”. It was difficult to know what exactly he meant when he said this. A day later we were informed that the Cyprus government had agreed to offer France permanent facilities at the naval base in Mari, which was confirmed by former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides who made it clear that this will not be a French base, but a Cypriot base on which facilities would be given to France.
A docking area will be built at the Evangelos Florakis naval base to allow French warships to dock, said Kasoulides last week. The project will be co-financed by the two countries. Cyprus has been offering facilities to the French navy since 2013 at the Andreas Papandreou base, but the new agreement puts the cooperation on a different level as the new area will be purpose-built for the French navy.
Cyprus has always enjoyed good relations with France so it was not a surprise permanent facilities will be provided after France reportedly expressed an interest a year ago in bolstering its presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Speaking at a news conference after the MED7 meeting last week, Macron said this co-operation “was related to the fact that we want a Europe that will have the capability to protect itself”. “Strengthened defence was a very important thing for Europe,” he explained.
The Cyprus government believe the naval base will enable it to have some involvement in EU security, but it would also have calculated that the presence of the French navy in the region will ensure the French oil giant Total can carry out explorations in the Cypriot EEZ without interference from Turkey. Whether this is correct reasoning time will show, even though most reports and government comments implied that the French would be here to protect Total’s activities in Cypriot EEZ and bolster Cyprus’ security.
This is more a case of wishful thinking than a pragmatic evaluation of the agreement. France asked for permanent facilities for its warships because it wants a presence in this part of the Mediterranean for strategic reasons not unrelated to EU security plans. Brexit means that the EU cannot not rely on the British bases on the island – if it ever did – for security. For France the situation in Syria will also have been a major consideration, a much higher priority than Total’s activities.
Akel has already expressed concerns about the agreement, claiming the idea that Cyprus would be better able to face Turkish aggressiveness in the Cypriot EEZ was “a dangerous illusion that would lead our country into danger”. It has a point, especially after the government and Disy tried to play up the military co-operation with France. But the real issue is that there is no harm in strengthening relations with France through a defensive alliance that also serves the EU.