‘Unbelling’ the cat in Cyprus

‘Unbelling’ the cat in Cyprus

In Aesop’s Fables, a group of mice get together to discuss how to rid themselves of the danger of the cat. After much discussion, they decide to put a bell on it, so that they can hear it when it approaches. Who though, the question then becomes, will bell the cat? The moral of the story is that it is relatively easy to agree on what should be done, but much harder to make the sacrifice when executing the task.

In Chinese lore, the focus is on unbelling the cat. “Let the one who tied the golden bell on the tiger untie it,” President Xi Jinping of China once said. He meant that those who create a problem should be responsible for its solution. That’s what’s supposed to be happening in the Swiss resort of Crans Montana when it comes to the Cyprus conflict. It’s all about unbelling the cat in Cyprus this time. 

Is there any hope? Well, the Turks, Greeks, Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots and, of course, the British, that is everyone who tied the knot, are there in Crans Montana to untie it. That these people can get together around a table is by itself progress well worth maintaining. 

Some time ago, the question was whether the conference would be with or without preconditions. Some wanted to settle security issues first, and then move on to future settlements. The Greeks and Turks had their usual differences. Yet now, we still have the conference. Looking for a positive sign? That is a huge step in the right direction. It displays political will by itself. We have never been this close to unbelling the cat in Cyprus. 

The last attempt for a resolution was the Annan Plan in 2004. All sides decided to go to a referendum to establish a new federal entity based on the equality of both communities on the island. Some 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted for unification, while 76 percent of Greek Cypriots voted against it. Note that 89 percent of Greek Cypriots and 87 percent of Turkish Cypriots participated in the referendum. 

2004 was also the year Turkey’s accession process to the EU officially started. The process was the common goal that tied the old and new elites of the country together. Turkish Cypriots too, saw no option to being part of the EU. The Turks at the time were ready to come out of the trenches, but not the Greeks.

The Annan Plan was not what is called an “incentive compatible” arrangement, meaning that both sides could not act in their self-interest to bring the deal to a close. Why? Because the Greek side was on track to be part of the EU anyway. It was this promise, realized in May of 2004, that killed the Annan Plan. 

Is this time different? It appears so. I see three reasons. First, in the past, Turkish Cypriots didn’t have a viable business plan; this time, neither do the Greek Cypriots. There’s still time for both communities to make a fresh start with a new and common business plan for the island.

Secondly, finding common ground in Cyprus is very important for Turkey’s EU process. Turkey would like to open the chapters for judicial reform and human rights, as the justice system is currently a major concern in Turkey for all of us. The EU is still the only common ground for Turkey’s divided population. The Greek Cypriot veto prevents those chapters from being opened, and hence, from the EU; once more becoming more effective in Turkey’s transformation.

Thirdly, a Cyprus settlement is important for Western diplomacy when it comes to the stability of Eastern Mediterranean. I see a less bleak picture when I look at Turkey-EU relations. In Malta, EU foreign ministers could not reach a consensus to freeze Turkey’s accession process thanks to Turkey’s new allies, if I may say so. On Friday this week, 60 percent of the Hungarian cabinet was in Ankara, together with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban himself. The ECHR has decided to wait for the results of internal Turkish mechanisms when it comes to those mistreated by state of emergency decrees. No progress report is due this October, as the format is to be changed in all progress reports. This gives us more time until April 2018, when the report is due with its new format.

In the past, we have looked at the Cyprus question from the perspective of belling the cat, as is the case in Aesop’s Fables. The Annan plan proposed a solution everyone wanted, but buy-in was a problem, and the plan failed in the execution phase. It might now be more useful to take the perspective of Chinese lore – emphasize common responsibility, and make all sides take ownership of the problem. After all, it isn’t nifty new methods we need in these talks, but a shift in mindset.