Originally part of the Ottoman Empire, Cyprus was ceded by Turkey to Britain as a protectorate in 1878, in return for security guarantees against the expansion of Tsarist Russia. The island became a British colony in 1925, Turkey having sided with the Central Powers in the First World War. From then on, there was growing support among the majority Greek Cypriot population for union (enosis) with Greece, leading to civil unrest: in 1931, for example, the British governor’s residence was burnt down. After a separatist terror campaign by EOKA, the island eventually became independent in October 1960, as the Republic of Cyprus. Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom were designated as ‘guarantor powers’, with a Greek Cypriot serving as president of the new republic and a Turkish Cypriot as vice-president. However, fighting between the two communities quickly flared up, leading to the withdrawal of Turkish Cypriots from the government and the deployment of a United Nations peace-keeping force (UNFICYP) in December 1963. The advent of military rule in Greece (1967-74) created unexpected tension between Athens and Nicosia, with the populist Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios, seeking maximum independence for the island. The Greek generals launched a coup against Makarios on 15 July 1974. When Britain, which retained sovereign territory for military bases on the island, declined to intervene as a guarantor power, Turkey invaded the northern part of the island five days later, ostensibly to restore order and protect the Turkish minority.

Since that date, just over a third of the Cypriot landmass has been under Turkish control, with the capital, Nicosia, cut in two. Today, around a quarter of the island’s population of 1.1 million live in the occupied northern part of the island. Migrants from Turkey have replaced many of the 200,000 Greek Cypriots who fled south, following the coup, losing their property in the process. UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions condemned the partition of the island and called for Turkish troops to leave. In November 1983, the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC) proclaimed its independence, but no other country (apart from Turkey) recognised the new entity, which was subject to an international trade embargo. In line with UNSC resolutions, the European Community – which had concluded an association agreement with Cyprus a year before the Turkish invasion – recognised the government of the Republic of Cyprus as the duly constituted authority entitled to speak on behalf of the island’s entire territory and population. Protests from the TRNC were ignored when, in July 1990, the Cypriot government applied for membership of the Community on behalf of the island as a whole. The TRNC, for its part, refused to be associated with the subsequent accession negotiations.

The opinion of the European Commission on Cypriot membership, delivered in May 1993, was generally favourable: the country enjoyed a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) higher than that of Greece or Portugal, and it had adapted well to Community policies under the association agreement. The Commission noted that many in both the Greek and Turkish communities supported membership in the belief that it would help ease tensions and promote reunification. However, the Commission also drew attention to the problems that would arise if there were no internal constitutional settlement before Cypriot accession. At the Corfu meeting of the European Council in June 1994, EU heads of government agreed that in the next round of enlargement negotiations, Cyprus (alongside Malta) should be given priority. Negotiations began in September 1998 and were concluded in December 2002. In an important concession to Greece, the European Council declared (in Helsinki in December 1999) that a political settlement of the Cyprus dispute would not be a precondition of the country’s admission to the Union. Cyprus was thus able to sign the accession treaty – together with the nine other new member states – in April 2003, with a view to membership the following year, without any settlement having been found.

UN-brokered talks on a potential settlement, which had started in the late 1970s, were resumed in December 1999, just ahead of the Helsinki summit, and accelerated in 2003, soon after the signing of the accession treaty, in the hope of reuniting the island in parallel with EU membership. Both sides accepted the legitimacy of converting Cyprus into a bi-zonal, bi-communal, federal state. As a confidence-building measure, the ‘green line’ between the two parts of the island was opened in Nicosia in April 2003 (and subsequently several other crossings have been established). The then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, presented what he called a ‘comprehensive settlement’ to the dispute in March 2004. Although his proposal was rejected by the government of the Republic of Cyprus, and opinion in the TRNC was divided, the international community decided to submit it to both communities in simultaneous referenda, held on 24 April 2004, in the hope of taking advantage of the momentum of impending EU membership. Whilst the Turkish Cypriots accepted the ‘Annan Plan’ – by a 64.9 to 35.1 per cent vote, on a turn-out of 87 per cent – the Greek Cypriots rejected it – by a 75.8 to 24.2 per cent vote, on a turn-out of 88 per cent. There was a widespread feeling among the latter community that the plan did not provide adequate guarantees on the restitution of property seized in the 1974 invasion (or compensation for its loss).

The Republic of Cyprus entered the EU on 1 May 2004, with the island still divided. The political fall-out from the failure of the Annan Plan and the sense of an opportunity missed weighed heavily on the situation for some time. There was also a fear that the Greek Cypriots would try to use the asymmetric outcome to seek to deepen the isolation of the TRNC. To avoid this, the European Commission came forward with legislative proposals to promote development within the TRNC, deepen economic ties across the ‘green line’ and permit trade between the TRNC and third countries. UN talks were renewed in September 2008, under the auspices of the former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer. The prospect of Cyprus’ first presidency of the EU Council of Ministers in the second half of 2012 was cited by some as a possible target-date for the next attempt to reunite the island, but in the event it was not used for this purpose.

The political system in the Republic of Cyprus is unusual in Europe in resembling that of the United States. Elected for a five-year term, the president is both head of state and head of government, and the administration he appoints is not dependent on retaining the confidence of parliament. There is a single chamber, also elected for five years, known as the House of Representatives, in which 24 of the 80 seats are left open for eventual assignment to Turkish Cypriots after reunification. The post of vice-president has also been left vacant.

The territory of the Republic of Cyprus does not include the British Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, assigned to the United Kingdom as part of the agreement on Cypriot independence in 1960. The SBAs do not form part of the territory of the UK for the purposes of its membership of the European Union either.

Further reading: William Mallinson, Cyprus: A Modern History, 2005; James Ker-Lindsay et al (editors), An Island in Europe: The EU and the Transformation of Cyprus, 2011.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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