Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist

A ‘normal’ vs a ‘loose’ federation

THE concept of a ‘loose’ or a ‘decentralised’ federation was introduced in public by Nicos Anastasiades after the collapse of the Cyprus talks at Crans-Montana in July 2017.  The idea was to somehow bypass the one positive Turkish Cypriot vote on every decision taken at the federal level – a commitment that has been consistently reflected in UN Security Council resolutions on Cyprus since the early 90s.  Initially, Anastasiades was referring to the idea as “food for thought” but he has repeatedly promised that he would revert with a detailed proposal – a promise he has not kept, despite the pressure exercised in this respect from various quarters.

The fundamental thinking behind the idea of a decentralised federation was that the fewer the decisions, which would have to be taken jointly at a federal level, the less risk there would be of the two federated states failing to agree and, therefore, the less the friction and the inconvenience caused by such disagreements.

Of course, the logical extension of the argument is that, if your sole objective is to reduce the potential friction between the two federated states to the minimum, why not aim at an arrangement under which no decisions, whatsoever, would have to be taken jointly, in which case the risk of friction would be reduced to zero.  This would be the two-state solution that would entail the partition of Cyprus.

Admittedly, in a press interview given by the president in November 2018, the proposal was qualified by clarifying that all the decisions would be decentralised, save those that [quote] had to do with a) the international personality, the sovereignty and the citizenship of Cyprus, b) the unity of the land, the people, the economy and natural wealth, c) defence, security and the guarding of the frontiers,  d) the representation before and the participation in the EU, the UN and all the remaining international organisations, e) any other competences that would be deemed [I suppose in the negotiation process] as “absolutely essential”.  As Anastasiades emphasised in the interview, the “decentralisation of competences has to do with the citizens’ day-to-day life”.

The general reaction at the time was that the proposal, which, in any case, was rejected by the other side, was so vague that it could not be subjected to a meaningful evaluation.  A few commentators made the point that the president was trying to square the circle.  Others stated that the vagueness of the proposal and the resulting uncertainty concerning the foundations of the federation entailed grave risks of plunging Cyprus into new adventures.  They all said that the president should explain, in clear and unambiguous terms, what he means by the term “decentralised federation”.  At that stage, the government spokesman admitted that the president had already sounded out Turkish Foreign Minister of Mevlut Cavusoglu, on the idea of a “decentralised federation” but did not give any indication concerning Cavusoglu’s reaction.

I am genuinely concerned that, if the negotiations are re-launched and the Greek Cypriot side is instructed to argue in favour of such a “decentralised” or “loose” arrangement, which I suspect that Turkey will only be too happy to accept, we can easily end up with yet another plan, which the Greek Cypriots will feel obliged to reject – with catastrophic consequences.

It follows that, if the president has come to a firm conclusion that the idea of a ‘decentralised’ or ‘loose’ federation is a good idea, this is the time to come out with a clear and detailed description of what his proposal at the negotiating table is going to be and how he anticipates that it is going to work.  An honest and open public debate on this fundamental issue of the structure of the federation will provide our leaders with the needed guidance as to what is acceptable and what it is not, and will pave the ground for a final agreement on the subject.

It goes without saying that I amongst others will listen carefully to the detailed explanations which will be given. However, until such time that I am convinced I am wrong, I must be honest and clearly state that I am against the idea of a decentralised federation.

The most important factor, which will determine whether we will end up with a fair, functional and long-lasting solution of the Cyprus problem, is the freedom of the north from the political and the economic stranglehold of Turkey.

The Turkish Cypriots must be able to judge and decide by reference to their own interests rather than those of Turkey.  In my opinion, it is of far greater importance for the Greek Cypriot side to be in a position to prevent Turkey from imposing views and actions on the Turkish Cypriots, which would be detrimental for the whole of Cyprus, irrespective of whether, on first examination, they may appear to be relevant only to northern Cyprus.  The desired degree of independence will not be achievable in a loose federation.

The second most important factor will be the elimination of all the marked differences between the standards of living of the inhabitants of the two constituent states. The attainment of this goal will be helped by the two constituent states being complimentary rather than antagonistic to each other.  A loose federation will undermine this climate.

The third most important factor will be the ability of the inhabitants of Cyprus to move freely between constituent states.  Moving freely is not confined to day trips.  It covers the effortless living in one constituent state and working in the other; the ease with which one can get medical care in where it is needed at a given point in time; the equivalence of educational standards and, by extension, the qualification to work in any part of the federation without being treated or viewed as a second-class citizen; the ability to have mixed marriages, adopt children, and change faith without barriers.

In general, it is to feel that you live in Cyprus irrespective of where your home is located, a feeling similar to the one Swiss people have irrespective of canton. Such a feeling will be unattainable in a loose federation where ‘the rules of the game’ in each of the two constituent states will inevitably diverge and will end up being substantially different, thus serving as barriers for keeping people apart.

One can easily see that I can go on expanding this list of arguments as to why a loose federation will undermine the prospects of attaining a functional, long-lasting arrangement.  You may legitimately ask: What is the difference between a unitary state and a federal system, if ‘the rules of the game’ are essentially identical throughout the federation?

In my opinion, it is imperative that the formulation of the rules, and I am not referring to trivial matters, such as the working hours of barbers and hairdressers, should be a task assigned to the federal government, in contrast to the application of the rules, which should be delegated to the constituent states with the possibility of appealing to the federal court in case of an improper application of the rules.  Given that an ever-increasing volume of rules is formulated at the level of the EU, the formulation of the rules at the level of the federal government should not be a problem provided that a certain minimum level of goodwill exists. At the end of the day, if one of the federated states is so against a proposed regulatory arrangement that the necessary one positive vote cannot be secured, let no decision be taken or let us introduce an arbitration process.

I am afraid that some Greek Cypriot politicians are so obsessed with political power that they would not hesitate to sacrifice their own long-term interests in order to satisfy their short-term interests and their passion. There must be ways to stop them from forcing us to commit suicide.  Let me clearly tell them that the majority of the Greek Cypriots and the majority of the Turkish Cypriots are fervently against the partition of Cyprus, be it in an open or in a disguised form.


Christos Panayiotides is a regular columnist for the Cyprus Mail, Sunday Mail and Alithia

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