Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Second Report

The role of the United Kingdom

Historical summary

164. The United Kingdom's involvement in Cyprus was summarised by our predecessor Committee in 1987

Between 1517 (when Cyprus was conquered by the Venetians) and 1878, the island was part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Greek Language, culture and religion were nonetheless generally allowed to flourish, despite some violent persecution of Greek Cypriot leaders, particularly during the Greek war of independence. In 1878 de facto control passed to Great Britain, in return for British protection for the Ottoman Empire against Russia, and in 1914 Britain formally annexed the island in response to Turkish support for Germany in the First World War. During this first phase of British rule there was already considerable support amongst Greek Cypriots for Union with Greece (Enosis) and in 1915 the British Government actually offered Cyprus to Greece in return for Greek support in the War. When, in 1917, Greece finally did enter the War on the allied side, the offer was no longer open.

British sovereignty in Cyprus was formally recognised by Turkey in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, and thereafter Cyprus was governed as a British colony until August 1960. In 1931, following rioting in favour of Enosis, the elected Legislative Council was abolished, and Cyprus was thereafter prevented—largely through Geek Cypriot opposition—from experiencing any form of democratic self-government (except at a municipal level) before independence.[230]

Independence followed a five-year guerrilla campaign against British rule by Greek Cypriot supporters of Enosis in which many died, and the arrest and deportation by the British of the spiritual and political Greek Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios.

165. Relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Cyprus after independence were close, if not always cordial. As a guarantor power under the Treaty of Guarantee, the United Kingdom had a continuing interest in Cyprus; its military bases on the island were of increasing importance; and there were strong trading and cultural ties. Even after the events of 1974, which many continue to believe were badly handled by the British Government of the day, relations between Cyprus and the United Kingdom continued to develop. In the 1980s and 1990s, the South of Cyprus became a major tourist destination for British holidaymakers; and by 2004 6,000 Britons owned property in northern Cyprus. Many thousands more own property in the South. There are also large Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in the United Kingdom, particularly in London.

166. The FCO told us that the United Kingdom has

… strong bilateral reasons for supporting efforts to find a settlement. The UK has close ties with Cyprus, not just based on shared history, co-operation on the Sovereign Base Areas, and extensive people-to-people contacts, but also a shared outlook on vital EU business, such as economic reform. We wish to see Cyprus play its full part in the life of the Union, which requires a settlement to the political problem.[231]

In this chapter, we examine the role played by the United Kingdom in the continuing search for a solution of the Cyprus problem; and we consider the importance of the United Kingdom's military bases on the island.

The role of UK diplomacy

167. In 1996, the then Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, asked the United Kingdom's former Ambassador to the United Nations, Sir David (now Lord) Hannay, to take on the newly-created role of the United Kingdom's Special Representative for Cyprus. He did this, Lord Hannay told us, because

… the British Government felt at the time, so they told me, that having committed themselves to Cyprus's membership of the European Union and that having some quite tricky implications for the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, it was really part of our duty to make a further effort, a further serious effort, to get a settlement to the Cyprus problem to obviate some of the tensions that would arise.[232]

168. As is clear not only from Lord Hannay's recent book,[233] but from the comments of others,[234] he expended a great deal of effort on his role as the United Kingdom's Special Representative. With his experience at the United Nations, he was able to work closely with the Secretary-General's special representatives and with international diplomats and political figures, many of whom he knew personally. However, after the collapse of the Annan 3 negotiations in March 2003, Lord Hannay requested that his appointment not be renewed. He was not replaced.

169. Lord Hannay's important contribution to efforts to find a way round the obstacles in the path of a settlement of the Cyprus problem was complemented by the work of another distinguished British diplomat, Sir Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the United Nations. Although not able to work on the Cyprus problem full time—he has also been responsible for the UN's contribution to the Middle East Peace Process, among other things—Sir Kieran has over a period of some years made a huge input to the negotiations on Cyprus, which we hope may not yet be over. We are fortunate to have been able to discuss the Cyprus problem with Sir Kieran on a number of occasions, most recently in October 2004.

170. As well as its diplomatic engagement with Cyprus, carried out with distinction by the high Commission in Nicosia, the United Kingdom is also actively involved in supporting financially a number of worthwhile projects in both communities. As the poorer community, with a standard of living well below that of the Greek Cypriots, the Turkish Cypriots naturally receive the greater part of this aid. For example, British aid to northern Cyprus in 2004-05 included £150,000 under the Reuniting Europe programme for public administration reform, customs reform and assisting the Turkish Cypriot administration to plan and prepare project proposals.[235] For 2005-06, northern Cyprus has been designated a "priority region" and aid under the programme will increase to £500,000.[236]

171. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cyprus obliquely expressed its annoyance with the United Kingdom's policy on Cyprus, by informing us of the "disappointment" of Greek Cypriots about United Kingdom actions during the Annan Plan negotiating process "trying to undermine the positions of the Greek Cypriot side" and about

… the fact that British policy, following the 24 April 2004 referendum, has not shown, in practice, respect for the will of the overwhelming majority of the Greek Cypriots, as expressed during the voting. There is a feeling that the British policy towards Cyprus, although in words purports to aim for the reunification, in actual terms consolidates the division and the alienation of the two communities bringing feelings of disappointment to the Greek Cypriot community.[237]

Dr Claire Palley, who from 1980 to 2004 acted as constitutional consultant to the President of Cyprus, told us that "the long-standing and consistent attempts to balance Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot interests were, from late 2002 onwards, subordinated to a desire to secure Turkish and American interests, with this policy being supported by Her Majesty's Foreign Office."[238] We received comments of a similar nature also from some individual Greek Cypriots and from some representative Greek Cypriot organisations, but we do not accept that such assertions can be substantiated.

172. Our own view is that the United Kingdom's actions in relation to Cyprus have continued to be motivated by a genuine desire to end the "division and alienation of the two communities" and we conclude that, despite assertions to the contrary, there is no wish or intention on the part of the British Government to perpetuate the present state of affairs on the island, still less to move towards a permanent and legal partition, which would be in no one's best interests.

173. In October 2004, the Minister for Europe visited Cyprus.[239] His visit demonstrated the British Government's continued interest and active involvement in the search for a settlement. Although there was never any real prospect that the Minister's visit would produce a new initiative—nor was one intended—we believe that it was welcomed by all concerned.

174. During our own visit to the island, we visited the British High Commission and we called on the British Council's premises on both sides of the Green Line in Nicosia. Both the High Commissioner and his staff and the Council have been carrying out a great deal of work to break down barriers between the two main communities, which they have listed in evidence to us.[240] One of the main activities of the British Council—which is largely self-financing—is assisting young Cypriots from either side of the Line who wish to study for British educational qualifications, in the United Kingdom or in Cyprus. We strongly support this work.

The Sovereign Base Areas

175. When we visited Cyprus, we spent several hours in the Eastern Sovereign Base Area (ESBA). As well as being briefed on the United Kingdom's continuing requirement for the use of its facilities in Cyprus, we observed and discussed a number of factors which relate closely to the prospects for a long-term settlement of the Cyprus question.

176. Most graphically, we were able to see from a distance both the abandoned town of Varosha, which since 1974 has been occupied only by the Turkish Army and has no permanent residents; and the bi-communal village of Pyla (Pile). Both these are adjacent to the ESBA, but each presents a different prospect of Cyprus. Varosha exemplifies the destructive, divisive conflict between the two communities: formerly a thriving tourist area, it has fallen into decay while being retained by the Turkish side as a bargaining counter. Pyla, on the other hand, is a settlement situated entirely within the UN-administered buffer zone.[241] The village comprises 950 Greek Cypriots and 500 Turkish Cypriots. Each community has its own mayor, school and place of worship. We were told that in Pyla, Greek and Turkish Cypriots co-exist peacefully, and co-operate on matters of common interest. In microcosm, Pyla is a symbol of the new Cyprus every bit as much as Varosha sums up the waste and pointlessness of the past 30 years of division.

177. At Strovilia and at Pergamos, we saw the day-to-day difficulties caused by the presence on the perimeter of the ESBA of two of the four Green Line crossing points. Effectively, these crossing points are situated at an external border of the European Union, although the SBAs are not part of the EU. As at November 2004, 36 staff of the United Kingdom Customs and Excise work in the SBAs, spending a considerable proportion of their time countering illegal smuggling operations and performing border checks.

178. The two Sovereign Base Areas, which cover 99 square miles of the land area of the island of Cyprus, are sovereign territory of the United Kingdom under the 1960 Treaty of Establishment. The Eastern Sovereign Base Area, located between Famagusta (Maðusa) and Larnaca, contains the main British Army units on the island. The Western SBA, to the West of Limassol, contains further Army units at Episkopi and a RAF base at Akrotiri. A further 13 sites, most notably the listening post on Mount Olympus, the highest point on the island, are retained by the United Kingdom under provision made in the Treaty of Establishment.[242] The importance of the bases and some of the sites to the United Kingdom's national interest and to wider interests was impressed upon us when we visited Cyprus.[243]Eastern Sovereign Base Area, showing proposed territorial adjustments

(Source: The Annan Plan)

Western Sovereign Base Area, showing proposed territorial adjustments

(Source: The Annan Plan)

179. Nonetheless, the 99 square miles of territory include large areas of land which no longer have any real military value. These areas are settled by Cypriot civilians; they consist largely of arable and grazing land, with some private houses. As part of the settlement envisaged under the Annan Plan, the British Government was prepared to transfer 46 square miles of SBA territory to Cypriot sovereignty, most of it within the boundaries of the Greek Cypriot constituent state but some within the Turkish Cypriot constituent state.[244] The United Kingdom's military facilities would have remained as sovereign territory and, we were assured, their operational value and capability would not have suffered. Indeed, as one witness pointed out, one side-effect of the Annan Plan would have been "to re-legitimate the position of the SBAs" under international law.[245]

180. Because the British Government made the offer to transfer sovereignty as part of the wider settlement envisaged under the Annan Plan, it was rendered null and void along with the Plan itself by the result of the referendum in the South of the island.[246] However, like the Plan, the offer remains on the table. We therefore asked the Minister for Europe whether the offer might be reactivated if the Annan Plan process itself is revived. He told us that he saw "no problem in handing some of it [the SBA land] back, but in the context of an agreement."[247] From the briefings we received when visiting the Eastern SBA, we are content that the transfer of sovereignty over the land, which is already owned by Cypriots, would have no adverse effect on the United Kingdom's interests.

181. One of our witnesses raised the question of whether the bases as a whole should be returned to Cypriot sovereignty even before an overall settlement. Christopher Brewin acknowledged the value of the bases to the United Kingdom, but suggested that the sovereign status of the areas was an anachronism. He called for "leasehold now".[248] Dr Claire Palley also suggested that the efficient functioning of the SBAs could suffer "If Cyprus-UK relations become embittered—as they well may".[249] Our Parliamentary colleague, Andrew Dismore MP, told us that the status of the bases was becoming an issue on the island.[250] However, when we visited, we encountered no significant pressure from Cypriots to alter the present arrangements, and it appears that the only political party in the South openly calling for such a step is the small Green Party.[251] We were also told that changes in status can be made only with the agreement of Greece and Turkey, which we believe is unlikely to be forthcoming in isolation from progress on the broader issues. We do not, therefore, agree with those who seek an immediate change in the status of the SBAs, or indeed any change outside the context of an overall settlement.

182. We conclude that the Government's decision to offer to transfer sovereignty over almost half of the United Kingdom's sovereign base areas on Cyprus to the island's two communities as part of an overall settlement was a constructive and useful gesture, with no negative consequences for the United Kingdom's interests. We recommend that the Government be prepared to renew the offer with the same conditions as before in the event that progress towards a settlement is resumed.

230   Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1986-87, Cyprus, HC 23, paras 19 and 20 Back

231   Ev 38 Back

232   Q 40 Back

233   Cyprus: The search for a solution, David Hannay, I B Tauris, December 2004 Back

234   Qq 33 [Brewin], 69 [Sanberk]; Ev 38 [FCO], 91 [Claire Palley] Back

235   GOF Reuniting Europe Programme: Projects Database 04/05, available at Back

236   GOF Reuniting Europe Programme: Strategy and Bidding Guidelines 2005/06, available at Back

237   Ev 119 Back

238   Ev 124 Back

239   Ev 39 [FCO] Back

240   Ev 59-60 Back

241   Outside Nicosia, the 'Green Line' is in places several kilometres wide and contains a number of settlements and farms. Back

242   HC Deb, 19 January 2005, col 949W Back

243   See also Ev 104 [Brigadier Henn] Back

244   See Maps 3 and 4 Back

245   Ev 128 [Claire Palley] Back

246   Q 200 [MacShane] Back

247   Q 201 Back

248   Q 33 Back

249   Ev 126 Back

250   Ev 244 Back

251   See also Q 203 [MacShane] Back

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