In the deputy president of the Cyprus Greens, THEO PANAYIDES finds a likeable activist unafraid of direct confrontation, slugging it out to break into Cyprus politics still split into issues of the left or right
What’s the protocol for a journalist meeting a politician for the first time at the entrance to Parliament, surrounded by MPs and security guards? Being enfolded in a bear hug and kissed on both cheeks probably isn’t it – but that’s how Efi Xanthou opts to greet me, the 38-year-old deputy president of the Cyprus Greens being very much the unguarded type. It sounds like a Dad joke to describe an environmentalist as a force of Nature – but she is indeed irrepressible, relocating our interview to the courtyard café (which, appropriately enough, is hosting an exhibition on Cyprus wetlands) where she orders a chocolate cake (she only eats half) and a sparkling water, and proceeds to talk my ear off. “I can drag on,” she admits. “If you don’t stop me, I can talk for hours!”
In a way, I’m almost sorry that she seems so charismatic. I’d have preferred her to be sluggish and indifferent, reinforcing my view of the Greens as a party in crisis. “Our two MPs are as workaholic as I am,” she affirms, our table piled high with legislative proposals from the day’s plenary session (she works as a parliamentary assistant, supporting MPs George Perdikis and Charalambos Theopemptou); “We’re a frantically workaholic team” – and I don’t doubt her, yet development is still being planned for the Akamas, and 15 tall buildings (and counting) are still being built along the Limassol seafront, and those ludicrous villas are still perched atop the Peyia sea caves, and beaches have been bulldozed in Paralimni, and erosion is still a big problem near Aphrodite’s Rock, not to mention tornados in mid-June and the wettest winter since records began. If people as dynamic as Efi are working flat-out and the environment is still such a mess, we might as well throw in the towel.
She nods along to my litany of eco-problems, and adds a few of her own. “I mean, we have the situation in Pyrga, where they’re trying to build an asphalt-creating unit right in the middle of the Machairas forest, under the monastery.” Efi was an MEP candidate in last month’s elections – and her social-media campaign focused squarely on issues like Pyrga, or for instance the situation in Kato Moni with a private company called Cypra: “They take in the sewage from pig farms in the area and they’re supposed to be creating bio-gas and fertiliser, and it’s supposed to be top-notch – but the people living close by, every single day they can’t get out of their homes, it stinks like you can’t imagine. They’ve been violating various regulations to do with the environmental aspect, the town-planning aspect, they’re polluting the areas around with spillage – there’s so many things, I can’t even begin to talk! And the biggest problem that came up – this was right in the middle of the [EU] campaign – was the fact that in Orounda, which is a neighbouring village, Cypra basically went into the fields and buried a big pipeline without getting any permits, not even –”
Tell me, though, I interrupt. This was right in the middle of the campaign; how many votes did the Greens get in Pyrga, Kato Moni and Orounda?
She grins wryly: “We got more than last time. But very few, compared to the rest.”
There’s a disconnect, for sure. The big story in the EU elections was the Green surge all over Europe (unsurprisingly, when climate change has become such a hot topic) – yet the Cyprus chapter got a mere 3.3 per cent of the vote, not enough to elect any MEPs. Efi herself – who’s been on the party’s central committee since 2002 – only got 1,577 ‘crosses’, i.e. voters casting a ballot for her personally. It’s not that the party’s campaigns fall on deaf ears. There’s no shortage of passion about the environment – it just doesn’t translate into votes, even when voters can see the environment being abused right on their doorstep.
Even on social media (way more Green than traditional media), she’s noticed that when she posts about serious eco-issues – stuff like the air pollution being caused by building work for the new mall in Larnaca – people view the posts and put little sad-face emojis in the comments, but don’t Like or share very much; “If I post a picture of me hugging a dog, I’ll get more Likes and shares”. Even activists seem to be trapped in traditional patterns of voting. “I’ve seen people who were warriors when it came to the sea caves – and they know exactly which political parties were in government when those decisions were being taken… yet they still voted for those parties!”
Efi herself is also an activist, of course – though a politician too. “I’ve been working here since 2009,” she tells me, ‘here’ being Parliament, “and I’ve [also] been protesting outside at least seven times a year”. She wades through the piles of paper from plenary sessions. She peruses regulations, trying to find the small legalistic arguments that invariably work better than moral or cultural arguments. She enjoys the practice of politics. The Greens, it turns out, are a much busier party than most people think: “We do 20 per cent of the legislative proposals that happen in Parliament, every single year since 2001. 20 per cent come from us! 50 per cent of all the parliamentary questions, as they’re called – the things that we write down in committees, to be discussed – 50 per cent of that comes from us. I am not kidding you, I have the data!” she adds, noting my slightly disbelieving expression. She wears the politician’s hat with pride – but she also gets stuck in, being a woman who believes in “direct confrontation”.
She has views on everything – not just eco-issues but community kindergartens, workers’ rights, gender equality, LGBTs – and isn’t shy about sharing them. She’s the kind of person who’ll always honk her horn if she sees someone throwing rubbish out the car window, “then, when we reach traffic lights and we stop, I get out of the car and I tell them: ‘This is why I was honking’.” Some get angry, others deny all involvement. On one memorable occasion, a lady threw a used Kleenex out the window. It was at the traffic lights, so Efi got out, picked it up and handed it to her, saying “You dropped this”; the woman started hurling abuse, then gave the Kleenex to her pre-teen son who was sitting in the passenger seat, “and he dropped it out of his window, and then they both gave me the finger”. Not a part of the 3.3 per cent, obviously.
It’s admittedly a fine line with activists: they can be infuriating, even when you broadly agree with them. Efi, however, is likeable, indeed she’s good fun – a rather squat, square-faced woman with a jovial, ebullient air, totally bilingual after eight years in Australia and a lifetime of avid book-reading. (At one point she makes a mistake in her English, saying ‘denominating’ for ‘demeaning’, and looks utterly mortified.) Personal relationships are often a clue: activists who seem alone in their private lives may be coming from a place of bitterness or frustration – but she’s not like that, lavishing praise on her support system and fulsomely devoted to her nearest and dearest.
Husband Lambros is her rock, a schoolteacher who also takes care of their eight-year-old son in the afternoons, allowing Efi to do her thing. They first met at uni, the University of Cyprus, though he was in his final year and she was “very rogue” at the time – “I was dressing up like a 70s hippy, I was playing the accordion on the university lawn” – and “he thought I was a pain in the ass… although I have to say I was totally infatuated with him!”. He’s the man of her life, as the saying goes; they’ve been together since 2002, married since 2006. “I never expected to be married at 25,” she admits. “My parents definitely didn’t expect it.” Her parents are a story in itself, reluctant emigrants to Melbourne where Efi (the oldest of five) was born in 1981 – though they never really warmed to Australia, and had already tried to come back twice before finally making the move in 1989.
Money was always an issue, especially with such a big family. Dad worked as a builder and manual labourer, Mum as a seamstress or not at all – yet the parents were also progressive, treating girls and boys equally (Efi recalls mixing cement and carrying bricks at 10, helping Dad build their house in Ayioi Trimithias) and arranging music lessons for all five kids, quixotically trusting in music to make them better people. Even now, they all get together a few times a year and play as a family, usually for charity, with Efi on percussion or accordion. Her background fuelled her idealism, and feminism. Even more importantly, her “safety net” (Lambros included, of course) offered support during moments like the summer of 2004 – she was jobless, just out of uni, trying to do too much, having failed in her first bid to be elected to the European Young Greens – when the world momentarily looked bleak. “I want to be very honest with you,” she replies when I ask if this inexhaustible energy ever fails her: “I think there have been times in my life when I’ve gone close to clinical depression. But, because of all this network around me, it hasn’t happened.”
It makes sense, I think. All politicians have energy, at least if they take the job seriously – Efi works “at least 12-15 hours a day” – but energy comes in many forms. One type (Donald Trump’s, say) seems immune to self-doubt, but hers is different. “Let me just say from the outset – it’s our fault,” she admits, of the Greens. “We’re obviously doing something very wrong with our communication strategy.” She doesn’t hector me, though admittedly we’re on the same side (she claims to have lost her temper on TV occasionally, though she seems quite measured – and, again, a great talker – in the YouTube clips I’ve checked out); her type of energy is warm, idealistic, not angry, which is great but potentially more fragile. Anger, after all, can be wielded like a weapon – but idealism tends to blame itself, or fall on its sword. Surely it’s ridiculous, I venture, at a time when the climate is obviously changing and the whole Western world is agog about the environment – when schoolkids are going on strike, and German protesters chaining themselves to the gates of the Chancellery – that our own eco-party gets a tiny fraction of the votes of bigger parties who literally do nothing except offer jobs? “I don’t disagree,” replies Efi mildly. “But I’m not going to call the electorate ridiculous.”
It’s the right-wing/left-wing divide. It’s the fact that “young people don’t vote”. It’s the media ignoring Green issues, and TV panels fixated on the Cyprus problem. It’s tactical voting (many eco-warriors voted Edek in the EU elections, to prevent Elam getting in). Any of these could explain the Cyprus Greens’ woes – as could the party’s own hardline stance on the national problem, when most of its demographic are presumably bicommunal. (Efi doesn’t betray her own view, but insists that any successful party “needs to have a position on all issues”.) Politics is a slog in this country; have her years in public life made her more cynical? “Yes, definitely. Most definitely! I’m a 38-year-old in body – but I think I’m like a 55-year-old in mentality, the way things are going. I’m actually surprised my hair hasn’t grown white yet!” Efi Xanthou laughs out loud, looking – despite her protestations – entirely un-cynical, in fact she looks ready to enfold some other passing stranger in a bear hug, or wolf down another slice of chocolate cake – or indeed save some wetland from illegal development. You can’t keep her down.