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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD):
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore)
on giving such a comprehensive introduction to this debate. He outlined areas in which progress has been made, and managed to cover a whole range of issues in this complex case. It has been very helpful to hear the experiences of hon. Members, many of whom have visited Cyprus. Some have spoken with constituents who have a link with that country and others have heard first hand from individuals-relatives of the missing and others-about the difficulties that they face. I always think that mention of such experiences brings something to the debates that we have in this Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman held an Adjournment debate on this issue on 15 January. Sadly, his cautious optimism then about the prospects for reunification now needs further qualification, and that is a great shame. However, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) made the point rather well when he said that talks are happening and that there is political will on both sides. Therefore, despite all the difficulties, we must welcome such an attitude and hope that it will lead us to a peaceful solution with equality and rights for both communities.
I echo the comments made by many hon. Members about the timing of this debate. We are discussing a divided island and a divided capital in the week of the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin wall, which I hope will inspire a renewal of efforts in this case.
Obviously, the clock is ticking. As many commentators have noted, the presidential elections in the north in April are likely to see nationalists elected, and that will clearly seriously damage the ongoing negotiations. Progress, so far, has been slow, but we have a window of opportunity at the moment with both Governments being pro-reunification. The fact that such a view is liable to end in a few months means that there must be a renewed sense of urgency.
The consequences of no solution have been pointed out by the International Crisis Group, which says that failure to reach a settlement could result in slow economic progress, greater defence spending and reduced international credibility for the Republic of Cyprus, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey.
David Hannay, the UK special representative for Cyprus from 1996 to 2003, has said that the prominent role played by those outside Cyprus may have had a detrimental effect, allowing Greek and Turkish Cypriots to blame outsiders for the failure of the talks. The Cypriots on both sides must own the negotiations at every stage, or they are bound to fail. That does not mean that outsiders have no role, but that their role should be discreet, and aim to persuade, not coerce, Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
The hon. Member for Hendon mentioned the natural deadlines, which obviously include the December assessment of Turkey's EU accession. I am very much in favour of Turkey joining the EU, not least for the symbolism of accepting a Muslim country into what is still perceived as a Christian club. However, the possibility of Turkey's accession to the EU presents a very curious Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, the EU is unlikely to agree to admit Turkey until a settlement is reached on Cyprus, and on the other, Turkey is unlikely to support a settlement
that is acceptable to Greek Cypriots if it feels that the EU is not sufficiently progressing its application. In September, David Hannay wrote:
"So long as there is breath in the body of Turkey's EU accession aspirations, there will be some hope for a Cyprus settlement."
The EU has an important role to play here. As we have seen in other parts of Europe, such as the Balkans, the prospect of accession can be used as a very effective incentive and negotiating tool. I am not saying that the EU has necessarily always been right about the way in which it has used such a tool in the past, but it is something that can be used positively.
Turkey is often blamed for the lack of progress on the Cyprus issue. People say that Ankara has not pushed hard enough for peace, but that assertion is not entirely true. The Turkish Government, under Prime Minister Erdogan, campaigned for a yes vote in response to the Annan plan in 2004, whereas the Greek Cypriot Government, under President Papadopoulos, campaigned for a no vote.
Having said that, Turkey could do more to progress the negotiations on Cyprus, especially by implementing the Ankara protocol and opening all its ports to EU trade. Furthermore, there is no reason for maintaining such a huge number of Turkish troops in Cyprus and movement has to be made on reducing that number.
However, Turkish Cypriots obviously feel very disillusioned, having voted yes to the Annan plan. They continue to be very politically isolated and economically disadvantaged, their young people cannot take part in the national sporting or cultural events and they look across the green line to the Greek Cypriots who enjoy the full benefits of EU membership and who are flourishing economically and socially. Obviously, that situation leads to genuine grievances. On both sides, property issues have also been raised.
We have heard in this debate some ideas about the types of confidence-building measures that could be put forward to make progress. It is not for us in the UK to resolve all the difficult individual issues that are at stake, but we should be an honest broker and take a neutral position, supporting Cypriot solutions.
I want to raise another point of concern with the Minister, which has been raised with me by the Liberal Democrat Friends of Turkey group. It has expressed a concern among Turkish Cypriots in the UK about the Prime Minister's decision to meet President Christofias tomorrow. Tomorrow is also the first day of a High Court hearing of the controversial Orams property case and as the meeting between the Prime Minister and President Christofias is on the same day, it could be interpreted as Britain possibly taking sides in that case. Obviously, it is not for us to become involved in international law in this instance, but we should seek to appear neutral. I would welcome it if the Minister reassured Turkish Cypriots in the UK that the British Government are not taking sides.
I also encourage the Minister and the Government generally to meet representatives of both Cypriot communities in the UK, to help to build consensus and confidence. I understand from the Turkish Cypriots who have been in contact with me that the British
Government have met a particular group of Labour-supporting Turkish Cypriots but they have perhaps not met representatives from the whole mainstream of Turkish Cypriots in the UK. So I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that issue.
I would also like to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon in the debate on Cyprus in January about the €50,000 donation for demining to the UN Mine Action Centre in Cyprus. That demining work is obviously an example of something that is very symbolic; not only does it help to demine the buffer zone but it helps to build confidence. I wonder whether we could have an update on how that money has been spent. Furthermore, given the €5 million shortfall that was referred to, is there any possibility of convincing other EU member states to give more money to that important fund?
In conclusion, I concur with the conclusion of pretty much everyone who has spoken today that the longer it takes to reach a settlement in Cyprus, the more likely it is that the division of the island will become permanent. Obviously, a permanent division would have huge negative consequences for regional stability and economic development.
As a guarantor power with strong relationships in Cyprus, the UK ought to have a significant influence on the situation there, although that influence should obviously be exercised discreetly. We should also be using our voice in the EU and the UN to push for a redoubling of efforts to use this window of opportunity to create conditions whereby these talks about the future of Cyprus can succeed, bearing in mind the imminent natural deadlines that exist.
I must begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing this important debate on Cyprus. It is right that we should devote time to this subject today, so that we can discuss it at Westminster in some detail. The hon. Gentleman went into considerable detail in framing the debate.
We have also had a number of other contributions, beginning with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers). She has a long-standing interest in the issue of Cyprus, first, Mr. Williams, as you may know, as a Member of the European Parliament before coming to this place. She has continued that interest since becoming a Member of Parliament at Westminster. She knows a great deal about Cyprus and has visited the island on a number of occasions. Today, she raised the issue of missing persons and I hope that, when the Minister replies, he can speak in some detail about it.
We also had a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes). He has significant Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities in his constituency, as he alluded to in his contribution. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he has also taken a close and strong interest in this subject. He spoke in some detail about the challenges facing Cyprus and the need for a settlement. I am sure that the Minister will want to respond to his contribution, too.
We then heard from the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love), who used the time available to him to maximum effect. He also pressed the Minister on the point that there is still an opportunity to achieve a settlement, which all of us present today would agree with. We hope that that opportunity will not be missed. We then heard from the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats. She gave a very balanced contribution in outlining the challenges that Cyprus faces.
I want to begin my contribution by pointing out that British-Cypriot relations go back many years. Indeed, it could be argued that they began with Richard the Lionheart in 1191, when he visited Cyprus en route to the Holy Land. He stopped off in Cyprus long enough to marry his wife Berengaria in the Byzantine St. George chapel in Limassol. Coming forward to today, Cyprus is now a fellow member of the Commonwealth, having attained its independence in 1960. It is also now an important trading partner and, of course, a member of the European Union.
Beyond that, we should not forget the thriving Cypriot community in the UK. For the first time, I believe, it has now produced a British-Cypriot MEP in Marina Yannakoudakis. I am sure she will continue to raise the Cyprus issue in the European Parliament with the same persistence that her predecessor in that Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet, demonstrated before her. We are very pleased that she can now be a voice for Cyprus in the European Parliament.
As we have heard, the talks aimed at resolving the division of Cyprus are ongoing, the current series having resumed in September 2008. It is with that in mind that I visited the island in April on behalf of my party, to see for myself the state of the negotiations and to try to familiarise myself with some of the issues at stake.
On that visit to Cyprus, I had the privilege of meeting President Christofias and the UN's Special Representative, Alexander Downer, who has worked so hard to get a dialogue going between the two communities. I also had the chance to meet the Turkish community's chief negotiator, Mr. Ozdil Nami. That visit taught me a lot about the issues involved-not least their complexity-and which must be addressed in trying to find a settlement to the dispute. I also learned about the special role that Britain has played historically in Cyprus.
The current state of the talks is that some progress has undoubtedly been made. For example, Mr. Downer is quoted in yesterday's edition of the Financial Times as saying that he is still "cautiously optimistic" about a settlement. He points out that President Christofias and Mr. Talat, the two leaders of the Cypriot communities, are meeting regularly and have discussed key issues, including power-sharing and property ownership in a future settlement. He is quoted as saying that, after almost 50 sessions of talks, the leaders
"have made significant progress-though not equal progress in all the chapters-but they have agreed on an enormous number of things".
The areas where the most progress has been made include the economy and European Union responsibilities. They are generally seen as being the least contentious of the six negotiating chapters. However, the Cypriot leaders
have also discussed the governance and power-sharing chapter that dominated their talks earlier this year. The talks have now entered into the detail of what is perhaps their most contentious section, on property. A meeting took place on Monday between the two leaders, and another is scheduled for Thursday.
As we have seen, some progress has been made. There are signs of concern that both the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities are beginning to harden their positions. In fact, a recent opinion poll demonstrates that about 60 per cent. of the Greek Cypriot population still have some reservations about a potential solution. A recent opinion poll published in the Turkish Cypriot daily Kibris showed that about 78 per cent. of Turkish Cypriots would prefer two independent states, and obviously, only a smaller proportion would say yes again to the Annan plan if it were put back on the table. It is a worrying trend, as Mr. Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader, will be facing elections within the Turkish community in April. It could lead to a new leadership that is less committed to bringing about the reunification of the island.
At present, therefore, there is still an opportunity to make progress in finding a solution that could lead to the reunification of the island, but both sides should be aware that delay at this point will not create an environment for the talks to succeed, and could in fact have the opposite effect. Unless further signs of flexibility appear, a valuable opportunity to reach a lasting settlement could be lost, a point made by hon. Members from all parties in this debate.
I have said that Britain should do all that it can to work for a peaceful settlement. That also applies to the other guarantor powers. Turkey, for instance, has a role to play in achieving a solution, and it would be beneficial if it showed greater flexibility in its relations with Cyprus in order to facilitate that solution. In that context, it is an interesting coincidence that the progress of Turkey's accession to the EU is due to be evaluated at the EU's December Council. It would undoubtedly be a good sign of Turkey's intent to pursue its European vision if, as a candidate country, it could demonstrate good will towards its potential future EU colleague, Cyprus, by showing some flexibility aimed at bringing about a solution.
I would like to raise with the Minister an additional issue relating to British people living in Cyprus. There have been numerous problems with British and other people investing money in properties in Cyprus and discovering later that the title deeds are either faulty or retained by a developer who may then re-mortgage the property without their knowledge. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office website acknowledges the problem, estimating that up to 100,000 properties owned by Britons, Cypriots and others may be affected by faulty title deeds. I believe that the Cypriot Government are trying to make progress on the problem, but given the number of British people caught up in it, has it been raised with the Cypriot Government directly? If so, can the British Government do anything further to facilitate a quick solution?
This week, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out. It is a cause for dismay that there is still no solution to the division of Cyprus. We hope
that one can still be achieved, perhaps even before the next British general election, whenever that might be. However, if a final agreement has not been reached by then, a potential Conservative Government are ready and willing to do what we can to help the people of Cyprus find a solution to that long-standing problem, subject of course to the realisation that the future of the island rests primarily in the hands of the two communities themselves.
The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams; I think that it is the first time that I have done so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing what he referred to as his annual debate. It is not annual, as it happens more than once a year; there was another Adjournment debate earlier this year that lasted only half an hour. However, I congratulate him on securing this one. The issue is important not only to the many Cypriots living in the United Kingdom, who, as many constituency Members have shown today, take a direct and specific interest in it, but in terms of securing justice and economic opportunity in a key area of the European Union. It is also important because of Britain's historic links with Cyprus, to which the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) alluded, although I sometimes think that talking too much about history in discussions about Cyprus is part of the problem, and that we need to talk less about history and more about the future.
Several hon. Members have referred to the irony of our debating this issue during the week when Germany is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the beginning of the process of German reunification, which I think everybody here welcomes. Of course, at the time, there was anxiety in the UK and some parts of the then Government about whether reunification was a good idea. I merely note that in 1948, the British Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, made it absolutely clear that the Labour Government were wholeheartedly in favour of a united Germany, just as we are entirely in favour of a united Cyprus. I think that those who argue for a two-state solution in Cyprus are going down the wrong route.
First I will refer to some of the specific issues raised and then I shall move on to more general issues. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) referred to the Maronite community. Obviously, we take a particular interest in that community. It is not large, but it is significant and its linguistic and cultural heritage is important. I do not want to refer too much to history, but ever since the Maronites arrived 1,200 years ago from Lebanon, they have played an important part in Cypriot life. We as a Government supported the Council of Europe's 2008 resolution calling for
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