Interview with Espen Barth Eide, Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Cyprus

Espen Barth Eide, Special Advisor of the Secretary-General on Cyprus. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

29 July 2015 – Throughout its presence in Cyprus, the United Nations has provided its assistance to the two main communities in their attempts to bridge their differences. Today, the UN is once again facilitating efforts to reach a mutually acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem.  

The Organization has stepped up its engagement in Cyprus as a result of positive movement on the ground. On 21 March 2008, the then leaders of the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot communities agreed to restart full-fledged negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary-General.

The direct talks that started on 3 September 2008 resumed on 11 February 2014 after a brief pause when the leaders renewed their commitment to the process via a joint declaration.   

Hailing the commitment of the two leaders to put an end to the long-running conflict on the island, the Secretary-General reiterated his full support to the peace process through hisIt is not only about politics, it is also about the economy, which means jobs and prosperity for people. good offices mission in Cyprus, under the leadership of his Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide. Currently, the talks are seeing renewed momentum under Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.

Mr. Eide, spoke with the UN News Centre about why he is feeling optimistic and how things are moving in a productive direction.

UN News Centre: We are seeing a lot of progress in the Cyprus talks now. There seems to be a new tone, and you have described 2015 as being a potentially decisive year for a solution. What is different about 2015?

Espen Barth Eide: It is quite a remarkable experience to be in the middle of this right now because we currently have two leaders, the leader of the Greek Cypriot community, Mr. Nicos Anastasiades and the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mr. Mustafa Akinci, who have between themselves developed a very positive tone.

UN Special Advisor on Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, discusses prospects for the island in 2015. Credit: UN News Centre

They have moved from a traditional approach of defending historically entrenched positions into what I will call “genuine problem-solving mode,” meaning that the problem is there to be taken away, not to confirm disagreements. We are now tackling issues that have been discussed for many years – as Cyprus has been in negotiations for decades – which are now being sorted out, thanks to this new spirit.

UN News Centre: There seem to be new initiatives being adopted in these talks. Can you give us a few examples?

Economically, the benefit of making two economies into one… will provide significant opportunities for new prosperity and economic growth that can be shared by both sides of the island.

Espen Barth Eide: The talks are principally about finding modalities of a Federal United Cyprus, bi-communal, bi-zonal, respecting the political equality of the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot communities but also as a modern democratic constitution in Europe in 2015. While that is the principal purpose of the talks, in the margins they are also solving current-day issues through confidence-building measures.

They are opening new crossings, to make it easier to go from one side of the island to the other and on connecting their electricity grids. They are also working on something that is very important for many Cypriots, to have telephone connectivity – which basically means that you can bring your cell phone to the other side of the island and it will work. It works everywhere else on the planet, it hasn’t worked in Cyprus but now it will.

So these measures are early signs that this is for real but they are not the main purpose. The main purpose is to actually reunite Cyprus, a country that was united and then broke apart, and make it, once again, one single sovereign country with two communities working under one federal roof.

UN News Centre: Are regional factors bringing vigour or impetus to the talks?

Espen Barth Eide: Yes indeed. Although Cyprus is a European country, geographically it is in the Middle East, very close to the Levant – meaning, geopolitically, it is highly unstable. It is close to Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt and, of course, Turkey. The geopolitical drama we are seeing these days in the Middle East has, in many ways, helped us in our work to try to convince the Cypriots that this is a particularly bad moment to continue a non-solution. It’s a good moment to actually move forward and reunify the country for the Cypriots themselves. It could also be, albeit small, a possible sign that it is possible to overcome historical differences; that it is possible to come together in a world where too many things are breaking apart.

I will also say that we have seen economic drama. Fresh in mind are the problems that Greece has been going through in attempting to stay in the Eurozone. This has had a positive disciplining effect on the talks in Cyprus because they know that, in addition to finding a political agreement, they also need to find a federal solution that is economically viable. That is why I am now working to bring the international financial institutions more directly into the talks because it is not only about politics, it is also about the economy, which means jobs and prosperity for people.

I think what many people in Cyprus are thinking about, north and south alike, is whether this solution will provide new opportunities for me as a person? Will it give me a job? Will the youth stop moving away and come back to the island? I think eventually the answer can be yes if you combined a political and economic approach. 

UN News Centre: How would you describe the atmosphere in Cyprus right now? What kind of grass roots initiatives are you seeing in support of a solution?

Espen Barth Eide: So much is happening, because for years, numerous Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots had wanted a solution, but felt let down many times. What I’m seeing is that these people are again starting to believe that a resolution can be found.

I encourage them to step up to the plate because we now have leaders who are working towards a settlement. But, at the end of the day, this has to be popularly accepted. When a deal is found, there will be two referenda: one for the north and one for the south. And only when the population says “yes” in both communities will we actually have the unification. We know this from experience, namely when the ‘Annan Plan’ was negotiated 11 years ago. It was supported by the majority of the Turkish Cypriots but rejected by the majority of the Greek Cypriots. When the leaders will present their outcome to a referendum, we must make sure that the people are ready to discuss this and make up their own minds.      

UN News Centre: What are the potential benefits of a solution to the Cyprus situation?

Espen Barth Eide: There are many benefits. First, a country that was originally one will be reunited, although under a new political framework, a modern democratic federal constitution. It also means that Cypriots can really experience and reap the benefits of being a rich culture with influences from different communities together, rather than exploiting their own culture to the detriment of the other side.

The fact that the Council is united in support of our work is seen in New York as a refreshing alternative.

Economically, the benefit of making two economies into one, and to live in peace with itself and its neighbours, will provide significant opportunities for new prosperity and economic growth that can be shared by both sides of the island. The natural resources in the waters around Cyprus have, up until now, been a cause of tension because they illustrate the unsolved issue of ownership. With the reunification, they can be jointly exploited. Together, every Cypriot will have connections to their immediate neighbours, benefitting all. So there are cultural, political and economic benefits to be reaped.

UN News Centre: You’ve just briefed the Security Council on the state of play.  How was your message received?

Espen Barth Eide: I felt it was a very positive reaction. All 15 Members of the Council came out with strong expressions of support to the work that I do, but much more importantly to the work of the two leaders, Mr. Anastasiades and Mr. Akinci – who, unlike their predecessors, are really looking at the big picture rather than focusing on miniscule details. They are looking at the essence of the issue. I will meet with them again on Monday when I am back in Cyprus. We have a new leaders meeting and a series of negotiations. I will convey to them that they have the support of the Security Council. I will also point out that considering the many other issues where the Council is deeply divided, this is not necessarily a standard statement for a UN envoy to make.

Several of the delegations yesterday [at his briefing to the Council] pointed out, not only did they support our work but they also took some pleasure from the fact that for once there was something they could work on together. This is such capital to bring with me back to the island as the Special Advisor of the Secretary-General, that the world community is actually united and ready to support them.

UN News Centre: Could you give us some insight into the next stage for the Cyprus Talks?

Espen Barth Eide: We have already done a lot of work as we had agreed to divide the issues into six main chapters, and we are moving forward on all of them. But of course, eventually, we will have to start writing a new constitution. What we are doing now is negotiating agreements on all of the parameters, which is a lot of work. We also have to deal with the issue of compliance with EU [European Union] standards because Cyprus will be an EU member.  Actually the Republic of Cyprus is a member today, but with reunification, the whole island will be.

In the months to come, we will be preparing the institutions of the north that, so far, have been outside of EU. We will also deal with the international dimensions of the Cyprus issue, which pertains to foreign military presence and the so-called Treaty of Guarantees from 1960 that gives Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom a certain right to involve themselves in constitutional affairs in Cyprus.   

UN News Centre: Is there a calendar?

Espen Barth Eide: We have agreed not to have an official or non-official calendar because we don’t want dates to take control over us. At the same time, the two leaders that I am working with on a daily basis keep insisting that there is no time to lose. This was also the Security Council’s message yesterday, to grasp the momentum while we have it. I, myself, have been involved in many peace processes, including in my capacity as Norwegian Foreign Minister as well as other political capacities and know from experience that these momentums come and they may go. The current climate is so good that we cannot expect it to get better.  We had better use it now and in that sense, the calendar is ‘as soon as possible’ – without spelling it out in numbers or months.      

UN News Centre: What message do you take back to the parties following your visit here to New York?

Espen Barth Eide: I will, first and foremost, convey to them in some further detail what the Security Council Members told me.  The fact that the Council is united in support of our work is seen in New York as a refreshing alternative to so many of its other calendar items, making it quite an advantage for the Cyprus talks. We now also have a responsibility to live up to the expectations of the world community represented through the Security Council.

And my second point would be to remind them that what I have heard now from everyone that I’ve spoken to in New York, be it the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans, the British, the French or anyone else in the Council, is to use this moment, this opportunity, and to tell them how they can help us.



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