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26 October, 2021
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A decentralized federation, with flexibility

An interview with UK High Commissioner to Cyprus Stephen Lillie

Marina Economides

Marina Economides

Kathimerini's Marina Economidou sits down with UK High Commissioner Stephen Lillie and asks for answers to the most critical questions about the rumored UK plan on the Cyprus issue.

1. A lot has been said and a lot has been written over the last few months around the so-called British initiative on the Cyprus issue by everyone except the UK side. Isn’t it time to specify what this proposal includes overall?

Let me be absolutely clear, there isn’t a British ‘proposal’ or ‘plan’ or ‘blueprint’, or whatever anyone wants to call it.

It’s true that we’ve been diplomatically very active, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, because we’re a guarantor power, the penholder in the Security Council, and we’re friends of both Cypriot communities. We ’re in a new phase of international activity around the Cyprus problem, following the Turkish Cypriot elections last year. , We’ve had lots of visits to the island and region by UK ministers and senior officials.

We’ve used those meetings to share ideas in an attempt to encourage the resumption of negotiations. They are informal ideas, not some comprehensive plan, and they are not the way that some people have tried to describe them. They all fall firmly within the agreed UN framework for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality, because that’s frankly the only viable way forward. At the same time it’s not enough just to repeat the words BBF like a mantra or slogan, we need to focus in on the detail of implementation.

2. There is a big concern in the GC side that these British ideas might lead to sovereign equality. Do you consider this kind of solution the only way out from the current situation of the Cyprus issue?

We do not support a two state solution. There is no support for that among the Greek Cypriots or in the international community. We have been talking about a highly decentralised federation, which should not be controversial, because it’s an idea that president Anastasiades also used. It deserves further discussion. It would allow the two communities a high degree of autonomy in terms of their day-to-day affairs, and it would preserve Cyprus as a single, internationally recognised sovereign state. That strikes the right balance between the Greek Cypriot need for one Cyprus and continuity of the independent Cyprus established in 1960, and the Turkish Cypriot wish to be in charge of the majority of their own affairs.

3. The main reason of this concern comes from your statement that the two sides should cover equal distance from each other’s positions. This is interpreted as a new model between bizonal bicommunal federation and a two-state solution…

When I said we need to bridge the gap, I was referring to the gap of mistrust and non-communication that has been going on ever since the failure of Crans Montana, and which got worse after the Turkish Cypriot election. Despite the differences in positions between the sides, they need to be talking to each other, or we’ll never have negotiations.

We’ve never advocated splitting the difference between BBF and a two-states solution. That’s not possible. BBF with political equality is already a compromise between a unitary state and two states. It’s set out in numerous UNSCRs, which we drafted,, and which provide an excellent foundation on which to construct a detailed and comprehensive final agreement.

4. There was a presentation of the British ideas in the National Council and the problematic elements according to the GC negotiator were the following: equal inherent rights, references to the cofounders & co-owners of the state, the reference that neither entity will exercise sovereignty over the other and that there are two states internally and one state externally. Can you specify what you really mean by this terminology?

I wasn’t at the National Council, so I don’t know what was actually said there. You are talking as though that list of phrases adds up to a UK framework, and I have to emphasise it isn’t. I’m not going to go through the list one by one, because Mr Kassoulides already did that for you in this newspaper , and he noted that some of these terms are not new or controversial.

But on that phrase ‘two states internally, one state externally’, to me that’s not new either. On the one hand we’re talking about one internationally recognised federal state doing external affairs like diplomacy and defence, and some other competences necessary to ensure the integrity and functionality of Cyprus as a sovereign state; and on the other hand we’re talking about two constituent states doing most of the internal things that affect people’s lives on a day to day basis, whether that’s healthcare, transport or environmental protection etc. That’s BBF.

As for the phrase, ‘neither entity will exercise sovereignty over the other’, what’s the alternative? That one community will exercise sovereignty over the other one? It was already agreed in the 2014 Joint Declaration that sovereignty emanates equally from the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. It doesn’t belong to one community or the other.

5. The GC side stresses that we should start from where we’ve stopped in Crans-Montana. Is this a realistic approach or has that ship sailed?

Trying to pick up from where Crans Montana ended is a recipe for a long and fruitless argument about where exactly it did end. But there’s a whole body of work done up to Crans Montana, as well as the UNSG’s six-point framework, and we can still build on and develop that. We also need flexibility and creativity, and we need to focus in on the most difficult issues that contributed to the failure of Crans Montana, in particular over security and guarantees, and the detailed model of power-sharing. We shouldn’t exclude any ideas that are within the UN parameters.

6. How do you explain the fact that all political parties -maybe except the ruling party- strongly disapprove these British ideas?

Some people keep suggesting that we are promoting a confederation, but we are not. A confederation would be a union of two sovereign states, which is a two-states solution and therefore not on the cards for Cyprus. A decentralised federation is still a federation, and a federation means one internationally recognised Cyprus, with a single international personality. Of course some people will criticise whatever the UK says, even if we didn’t say it.

7. Nicos Anastasiades compared your proposal with the Scottish demand for secession. Is this a fair statement?

Scotland and Cyprus aren’t comparable. The UK is not a federal system. It has a unique system of devolution, which reflects our own history and political conditions. We have never suggested replicating it in Cyprus. However, there are some individual aspects of UK devolution that are worth studying,, such as how the communities share power in Northern Ireland.

As far as secession is concerned, the big question is what happens if the new federal Cyprus collapses. I don’t think this is likely, but people do worry about it. Would the Turkish Cypriots be left in limbo? Would Cyprus be forced out of the UN, like the former Yugoslavia? A proper discussion is required to address these issues in a satisfactory manner and provide each community with the reassurances they need.

8. You have been criticised by the GC side that the drafts made by you, as the penholder of the Security Council on the Cyprus issue, were very mild towards Turkey’s decisions to violate the UN resolutions on Varosha…

Our position on Varosha is clear. It’s set out in the national statement we issued following President Erdogan’s visit in July, and it’s reflected in the PRST and Resolution of the Security Council, which we fully support. The UK is not the problem on Varosha, even if it’s expedient for some people to say otherwise. We need Turkish compliance with the relevant UNSCRs, so that Varosha can be a bridge to a solution of the Cyprus problem, not an obstacle.

9. UK was accused that during the discussion on the last UNFICYP resolution had tried to stretch the basis on the solution so that some of the Turkish demands could fit in it…

As I said before, we need to get beyond the broad concepts and slogans around BBF and into the hard detail of the implementation. The federal model is very flexible, and there are choices about how exactly to implement it in Cyprus. We need to use some imagination and creativity on this, so we can accommodate the fundamental interests of both communities, including their need for security. You can do all this within the existing parameters; there’s no need to stretch them and we never attempted to do so. I don’t really understand why some people find that so difficult to acknowledge. Do they not want to persuade the TCs that BBF is still worth talking about?

10. What is your general estimation on the current situation? Are we in a dead block or is there an optimistic alternative in order to restart negotiations?

I have to be honest. The current situation is worrying. Time is not on the side of those who want a negotiated solution to the Cyprus problem, it’s on the side of those who are happy with partition. At the same time, as a profession diplomats tend to be optimistic, even in difficult conditions. I still believe that with energy, creativity, flexibility and political will it is possible to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. You can count on the UK to support this. As I’ve said many times in the past, only reunited can Cyprus unleash its full potential. But ultimately it’s up to the Cypriots to decide what happens next.

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