In an interview with Alper Ali Riza, Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar explains why it is time the international community should think outside the federal box
Lunch at Buyuk Han within northern Nicosia’s Venetian walls, then a short drive past the law courts and round the corner to the “presidential palace” to see Ersin Tatar “president” of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”.
He agreed to see me at my request. I wanted to know precisely why the Turkish side abandoned a federal solution to the Cyprob for a two-state model based on sovereign equality.
Sovereignty is state autonomy that evolves on a continuum often to fully recognised statehood. In international law, it is the sum of rights and obligations of independent states.
Sovereign equality is the principle enshrined in the UN Charter that affords equality between states independently of their size, population and wealth.
All this and a lot else on sovereignty and the evolution of states can be found in The Creation of States in International Law by James Crawford.
What follows is an impressionist summary of what I was told over an interview that lasted just under two hours.
I first latched on to the Turkish demand for sovereign equality to be on the table to ask if that meant the federal model was also on the table. I was told the federal horse had bolted for good in 2017 at Crans-Montana after the refusal of RoC president Nicos Anastasiades to reset Cyprus as a bicommunal federation.
It was high time, he said, for Cyprus to disengage from the 1960 bicommunal straitjacket altogether and for the international community to think outside the federal box and make the solution fit the problem, not the problem the solution.
A bicommunal federation had been a convenient model that provided the UN, the EU, the RoC and successive Turkish Cypriot leaders with common ground but current Turkish thinking was that there was causal link between its unsuitability and its repeated rejection.
It had kept negotiations going on indefinitely, but on a close and honest analysis it was totally unsuitable for Cyprus and was doomed to fail again leaving the Turkish Cypriots empty handed as happened in 2004 and in 2017. We are no longer gullible Ersin Tatar told me; he used a more fruity Greek word but that was the effect of what he said.
The conditions necessary for a federation to prosper do not exist in Cyprus. Federations develop between entities that have a lot in common and wish to join together to mutual advantage – usually in the interests of national security. They are not suitable where the proposed entities are not on talking terms, have a history of animosity, a different language and religion and identify with motherlands that have issues with potentially deleterious consequences.
Apart from the debacle at Crans-Montana in 2017, bicommunal power-sharing demonstrably failed in 1963 and could not get off the ground in 2004 when 75 per cent of Greek Cypriots rejected a UN-EU inspired federal plan in a once in a generation referendum. It was therefore unrealistic and wrong for the international community to continue to insist on a federal model just to keep a lid on the problem.
The sovereign equality model was not conceived to punish the Greek Cypriots for rejecting a federal solution or to gain an unfair advantage over them, but in order to unleash its more flexible and creative potential. Two sovereign entities could embark on an EU-style union without implementation concerns, or power sharing problems, or a root and branch change in the political culture of the people and the way they are governed.
Without prejudging the outcome of any future negotiations, I was told, it was easier to share chunks of sovereignty than to share a state. In EU jargon this is called conferral of competences, and just like the 27 countries of the EU have had no problem conferring competences to the EU, it should be possible to confer competences to a kind of umbrella union in Cyprus.
But would sovereign equality not amount to partition contrary to the treaty of guarantee I asked. The federal umbrella is no more a bulwark against partition than one based on selectively shared competences; once the emotionalism that surrounds sovereign equality is overcome it will be realised that it serves more to arrest rather than promote partition.
In any case partition is what we have at the moment. Sovereign equality is as much a process as it is substance. As a process it does not exclude the pooling of sovereignty creatively in areas where agreement is easy: tie loose ends, confer competences in mutually agreed areas, and leave the door open for future conferrals to cement the union further in light of experience.
What about membership of the EU, I asked pointing out that the EU is not going to agree two Cypriot states. Ersin Tatar said he saw no insurmountable obstacles, although he was minded to hold a referendum on whether the Turkish Cypriots want membership of the EU.
Finally I asked what incentive Greek Cypriots would have to agree to a process that requires them to accept sovereign equality as a precondition? It was a big ask, was it not? Indeed what incentive would Turkish Cypriots have in making any concessions if they have the whip hand in the shape of sovereign equality at the outset?
The answer I got was interesting. Sovereign equality constituted a rational imperative. After Crans-Montana it became clear that the federal model route was exhausted. As Einstein famously put it: doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result is crazy. I was told that a realistic and workable alternative is to live side by side in peace and tranquillity in a cooperative relationship to mutual advantage.
I was then asked what in their heart of hearts the Greek Cypriots honestly and really wanted in Cyprus. I said that in my view most Greek Cypriots favour a majoritarian unitary state which they currently have in the RoC and which the popularity of Nicos Christodoulides suggests they are not prepared to trade in for a federal system let alone one based on sovereign equality.
Alper Ali Riza is king’s counsel in the UK and a retired part time judge