Outgoing British High Commissioner Stephen Lillie has served in Cyprus since 2018 and had to oversee the Brexit process. In a farewell interview with the Cyprus Mail he answers questions on bilateral relations and how Brexit has impacted the lives of British expats
UK-Cyprus relations appear to be very good at present. What do you think is the reason for the improvement in relations in the last few years?
I agree with you: the relationship has grown significantly. It’s stronger and wider than ever before. I think that comes down to a shared willingness in both governments to work together, cooperatively and transparently, to achieve practical benefits for our peoples.
We have achieved a lot together over these past four years including close cooperation during the pandemic, implementing the non-military development plan for the Sovereign Base Areas, or supporting Cyprus in setting up its own single government portal gov.cy through the UK government digital service. We’ve also had some fantastic high-profile visits including the visit last summer of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. Then we had the visit earlier this year of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, at the invitation of House President Annita Demetriou, topped off this summer by the visit to London of Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides and, of course, the first visit to Cyprus of Their Royal Highnesses, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex, and his wife, the Countess Sophie. Putting all this together, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and think it’s clearer than ever that Cyprus-UK collaboration is hugely beneficial for both our countries.
Could it be attributed to the lack of movement on the Cyprus problem, in which any British move was viewed by Greek Cypriots with suspicion and hostility?
There are some people here who view anything we do on the Cyprus problem negatively. I don’t think they speak for the community as a whole, and I’m not sure they even want a reunited Cyprus, but they shout louder than everyone else.
The fact is that the UK has consistently supported a Cyprus settlement based on a bizonal, bicommunal federation with political equality between Greek and Turkish Cypriots – as set out in the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. I think it’s fair to say we have been the most active international player on settlement in recent years, encouraging new ideas and flexibility with a view to finding common ground to build on.
In the meantime, naturally, we continue to develop our bilateral relationship, as set out above, and to nurture links with all communities on the island. That’s what diplomats do, the world over. Cyprus is no different in that respect.
What impact has Brexit had on trade relations with Cyprus? Which sectors have been particularly affected? Do you have figures on how the annual volume of trade has been affected?
I’m satisfied with UK-Cyprus business relations considering the challenging global context, with the pandemic and Russia’s disastrous war against Ukraine. The UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is the largest free trade deal ever agreed by both sides, and it allows imports and exports between Britain and Cyprus to continue without tariffs or quotas. It’s a very solid basis on which to trade. We keep in close touch with Cypriot business organisations, and if there are problems, we work with the authorities here to address them.
Some businesses say the paperwork involved for importing British goods is time consuming and not worth the trouble (supermarket brand items for example), for items with small profit margins. Has the High Commission had complaints from businesses about the new requirements?
I think that’s an issue for the government of Cyprus, isn’t it? I mean, it’s their paperwork – or the EU’s – not ours. Seriously, though, people are not complaining to me, and I see an extensive range of British products on sale – and on the roads, by the way.
There was a big fuss about the post-Brexit fees at UK university fees, with Cypriots no longer eligible for home fees, or loans. Has there been a fall in admissions of Cypriots to UK universities after the introduction of the new fees’ regime?
I don’t have full figures, but yes, I think it’s inevitable that some people who might have considered applying to the UK are considering lower-cost alternatives. But UK universities don’t compete only on fees, but on their full-service offer. A British university education remains one of the very best in the world, and I know that it remains highly desirable and sought after by many of Cyprus’ most talented young people. We welcome them to study in the UK and to experience everything which our country has to offer. And through the Graduate Visa and Skilled Worker schemes, there are also plenty of opportunities to work in the UK after graduation.
It would be wrong not to ask about the halloumi status in the UK.
Its status is high, especially during the BBQ season.
Why do you think the Cyprus government refused to allow British permanent residents to maintain their voting rights in the local elections post-Brexit? After all, the British are very generous in giving voting rights to Cypriots in the UK. And, the Brits in Cyprus were only asking to vote and hold office in local elections, not parliamentary or presidential elections.
We were disappointed by the Cyprus government’s decision to remove voting rights from British expats, especially as we had lobbied extensively on the issue. But it’s up to them to explain their decision, not me. You’re right of course that we have a more flexible approach in the UK, which allows all Commonwealth nationals to vote.
In communities like Peyia, the numbers of British expats are particularly high and with these voting rights being taken away, how can the community put pressure on the local authorities?
I am sure that the local authorities will be sensitive to the opinions of their British residents, who pay their taxes and contribute in all sorts of positive ways to the wellbeing of the communities where they live.
Post-Brexit, are more British expats ‘going home’? Is interest in buying properties in Cyprus dwindling?
People leave all the time; that’s not new. I’m not sure about how many people are arriving here. It’s certainly possible that fewer will choose to come in future, if they can’t get residency as easily as before. Then again, Cyprus remains hugely attractive to Britons for other reasons, including the weather, hospitality and Mediterranean lifestyle. That’s why tourist numbers from the UK have bounced back so quickly after the pandemic.
What’s the best example of intercultural exchange you’ve seen between British expats and Cypriots?
It’s hard to choose, because there are all sorts of excellent ‘intercultural exchanges’ between Cypriots and Brits. But I would pay tribute to the many UK expats who are active citizens, volunteering with local organisations to protect Cyprus’ wildlife or support animal rescue. And going back to education I’d highlight all those Cypriot alumni of UK universities. This includes close to 300 alumni of the prestigious Chevening Scholarship programme which ran in Cyprus from 1984-2007. It’s always great to meet these inspirational and influential former scholars and hear their fond memories of their student days in our great cities.
Do you have any regrets, any work left undone in regards to the aftermath of Brexit and the rights of expats?
No more than Frank Sinatra.… Genuinely, I’m very pleased with what we did with the Cypriot authorities and the British community here on the island to navigate the uncharted waters of the post-Brexit era. I pay tribute in particular to the British volunteers of the Cyprus Residency Planning Group which we helped set up. They worked tirelessly to ensure that our elderly or vulnerable British residents completed their residence applications and they can continue to access the help and services they need. And so many others work to help the community as well, be it the Anglican Church, the Royal British Legion, armed forces charities, and so on. It’s a real team effort.
What will you miss most about Cyprus?
My wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed our time here on this beautiful and fascinating island. It’s an obvious thing to say, but we will miss the many friends we have made, in all communities, as well as the countryside. As a keen hiker, I’ve really enjoyed getting out into the countryside and exploring the forests, mountains and coastline. We had some unforgettable moments, including seeing turtles nesting and our many visits to Kormakitis to see the wild tulips.