Is there a Cyprus timetable? Absolutely

Is there a Cyprus timetable? Absolutely

Greek Cypriots have been adamantly rejecting a timetable for the Cyprus talks while the Turkish Cypriot side keeps on warning that, for several reasons, not only is the end of 2016 a natural deadline but that meticulously planning the next few months has become a must. The New York trilateral meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mustafa Akıncı, largely failed, particularly because it did not end with the announcement of a timetable.

The photo of an astonished Akıncı and a victoriously joyous Anastasiades sitting opposite the U.N. secretary-general was captioned, especially in the Greek Cypriot media, as proof that the Greek Cypriot leader had been “rescued” by Ban while all the hopes of the Turkish Cypriot leader were dashed. For this writer and many other analysts who have been following the Cyprus problem for the past number of decades, the New York meeting ended as expected, without any surprise. Why? Would it not be absurd for Anastasiades to accept a deadline for the talks knowing that whether it’s the much visited “governance and power sharing chapter,” or the “territory” and the “security and guarantees” headings yet to be formally discussed, the two sides have been as far apart as night and day?

However, Anastasiades and his fans were wrong to celebrate that there was no timetable or deadline for the talks, and Akıncı was perfectly right that there is a “natural deadline” for the talks for many reasons. First of all, Ban’s term as secretary-general will expire at the end of the year. Next year, there will be a new secretary-general. Will he commit himself as well to a Cyprus exercise which must take at least an 18-month recess for a very important reason, the Greek Cypriot presidential elections in February 2018? No one would likely want the Cyprus problem to be an issue of shallow political bickering during the presidential election campaign or during the formation period of the new cabinet. Naturally, it might be argued that irrespective of who is elected, talks will pick up from where they were left before the elections. That might be, but it is likely that if Anastasiades fails in his re-election bid, several months might be required to persuade his successor on a compromise federal solution. If for example, Citizens’ Alliance leader Giorgos Lillikas, believed to be supported by the church of Cyprus, manages to get support from his former party, the communist AKEL, he might be the successor to Anastasiades. With him in office, the talks would definitely be history. In any case, the current momentum would be lost if the talks went for an 18-month hiatus.

Akıncı was totally mistaken in trying to buy a trilateral meeting and a five-party summit by opening discussions on the security chapter and giving Greek Cypriots the perception that if they stalled, the talks might be sufficient enough to get the “settlement beggar” Turkish Cypriot leader to totally surrender. Yet, he could not be wrong at all when he declared that the trilateral meeting ending without a timetable and deadline declaration should not be taken as if there was no deadline; indeed, the end of this year is a deadline for the completion of the talks even if some technicalities might be worked out in early 2017 and the two peoples go to separate referenda on the magical accord sometime in March.

Indeed, not only is there a deadline for the talks, there is also a schedule laid down quite clearly in the event that there is a desire for a settlement. On Tuesday morning when the two communal leaders start the “reinvigorated intensified talks,” the first phase of the new timetable will start. Tuesday’s meeting of the two leaders will produce, most likely, a schedule for the talks to be held in this new round. How long will this phase last? Probably two weeks. During these three weeks, governance, property, economy and the European Union chapters will be revisited. If the leaders manage to finish all these four chapters or establish sufficient convergences, the remaining issues could be sorted out in the comprehensive give-and-take stage which must precede the start of the third phase. In that second phase, the Turkish side believes a Camp David or Burgenstock-style process off the island should be held in which the two sides, with the help of some intermediaries, to conduct a comprehensive and wholesome give-and-take process on all aspects of the Cyprus problem, including territory and property but excluding the security and guarantees heading.
In that second round, Turkish, Greek, British and of course European Union representatives might facilitate the talks. In the third phase, a five-party international conference – with the participation of Turkey, Greece and Britain – might convene to help the two sides finish off any outstanding issues and to iron out how in the new Cyprus federation the security and guarantees issue should be defined.

These, of course, reflect the Turkish Cypriot perspective, which once again demonstrates a serious commitment to negotiations. The fourth phase, if somehow a settlement deal on all six chapters is achieved, will be to refer the federation agreement to separate, simultaneous referenda and seek the approval of the two peoples.

And if it fails? If the natural but undeclared timetable at the end of the 2016 deadline is missed, the two sides will be required to tell the world why they failed and walk their separate ways. Is it not enough to waste time with inconclusive talks on a federation?