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28 May, 2024
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Mario Nava: 'Energy can strengthen the connection between the two communities'

The EU's Director of Structural Reform explains to 'K' how the EU supports the potential for a solution and considers energy key in the relations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots

by George Kakouris

In an interview with Kathimerini, Mario Nava touches on a number of issues with regard to the Cyprus Problem, including how trade between the two communities is the only answer to smuggling, the progress in the implementation of the Halloumi case and the role of the EU in future Cyprus talks.  Mr. Nava is the head of the Commission's Directorate General for Structural Reform Support (DG REFORM), which is responsible for the Assistance Programme for the Turkish Cypriot Community and, more broadly, for the EU's support on the ultimate goal, which he stressed, remains reunification on the basis of the UN parameters.

As an economist, it's clear to me that good money chases away bad money - so the more legal green line trade we have, the less smuggling will there be.

On the occasion of discussions on the creation of a bi-communal solar park and the energy crisis, Mr. Nava referred extensively to the multiple programmes that enhance cooperation on environmental and energy issues. However, he also commented cautiously that the insistence of the current T/C political leadership on two states is unacceptable.  Moreover, he delves into how the EU can support the T/Cs and the challenges to freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the occupied territories.

On the bicommunal solar power plant, it has been announced that there are discussions on conducting a pre-feasibility study. Could you explain what this process entails and when we could expect the project to move ahead?

We certainly support the establishment of a bicommunal solar plant to increase cooperation between the two Cypriot communities, in particular, to raise the rate of renewable energy sources in the energy mix in Cyprus, in line not only with the European Green Deal but also in line with the natural resources of the island.

We are having discussions with the two communities and the United Nations to pave the way to a pre-feasibility study. This study would also offer possible solutions for the technical requirements of the power plant.

Why the UN? Because the buffer zone is considered a possible location.

However, and I think this is the reason you are asking me, the discussion is still ongoing. We are of course ready to launch the pre-feasibility study once the representatives from both communities and the UN agree on terms and modalities.

At this stage it is not possible to have a deadline, I don't have a precise time frame to share. What I want to say is that discussions are ongoing.

Could you explain what the pre-feasibility study would entail and who would conduct it?

When you carry out a feasibility study, this means that we are considering investing and going in that direction. A pre-feasibility study is less sophisticated but equally involves all possible stakeholders, looks at the possibility of the project and assesses whether it is worth it from several points of view that we identified. These include the technological, environmental, economic, and energy independence aspects for example.

The pre-feasibility study is not the kick-off of the project, but a necessary step and a customary step.

It is not yet decided [who would do the study] because we are not yet at the stage of its launch. This will be decided once we have understood the different terms and modalities that the two communities and the UN ask for.

What other projects in the field of energy is the Commission supporting?

As you know, we have been working with the two communities to increase and develop the exchange of electricity according to their needs. For example, we have provided the tools to manage the high voltage grid in the Turkish Cypriot community. This is very important for the synchronisation of the two electricity systems. Therefore, in a way, this future bicommunal solar power plant will build on existing cooperation and will contribute to improving it.

Energy is clearly a key sector for Cyprus and has the potential to strengthen the connection between the two communities. There is no doubt.

And this potential extends to cooperation on the environment?

The environment knows no borders, so of course, it knows the green line even less. Overall, the aid programme has invested more than 185 million to address the most pressing environmental challenges in the northern part of Cyprus.

These include, for example, the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea and open-air burning of domestic waste. We have funded the only sanitary landfill in the Turkish Cypriot community. This means that the waste does not pollute the groundwater.

We have financed the construction of three wastewater treatment plans including sewage networks and I have personally visited the plants.  We have helped establish an air quality monitoring network which I have also visited, and we financed a small pilot solar power plant some 10 years ago.

What we are also trying to do is to create conditions for the environment to blossom. We have helped to establish seven so-called "Specially Protected Areas" to preserve biodiversity and we provide advice, training and awareness raising on environmental issues.

We have also done projects on a bicommunal basis, for example, the wastewater treatment plant in Mia Milia/ Haspolat, which is jointly managed by both the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot local communities.

We have also encouraged the inclusion of Turkish Cypriots in the EU programmes which are implemented in the areas under the control of the Republic of Cyprus, and in EU-funded initiatives such as the Cyprus Institute.

In Cyprus, the EU LIFE program supports, for example, the protection of sea turtles, griffon vultures, Bonelli’s eagles, and animals which are endangered. We need to ensure that they are protected no matter where they nest.

How is your interaction with the communities and civil society in general?

We tend to interact with the two communities that appoint their representatives. Also, we make a point, and this is very visible in our aid programme, to interact with Turkish Cypriot civil society organisations. In the Turkish Cypriot community, in particular, the environment is a very strongly felt and supported issue so there are a number of active civil society organisations.

I see an increasing interest from both sides. I think this incredibly hot summer that we have had, the looming energy issues and many other factors are increasing the importance of the environmental and green dimension and we see more and more attention from civil society on both sides.

How would you assess the implementation of the Green Line regulation almost 20 years later? Do you believe it has been used to its full potential?

First of all, the existence of the Green Line Regulation has allowed orderly trade. That per se is already a very good result because we have regulations that allow the passing of goods.

You have asked whether it’s been used to its full extent. As a good Commission official, I am always ready to say we can do better. Trade last year was about 6 million euros. It is expected to increase this year, however, the volume will remain fairly modest and should increase further.

When she was on the island in July, Commissioner Ferreira raised this issue with interlocutors in both communities. We would welcome it if Greek Cypriot companies proactively sought partnerships with Turkish Cypriots and vice versa. The two chambers of commerce and industry are active and could become even more active by organising trade fairs, networking events and showcasing successful examples of Green Line trade.

Let me stress that it is clear that all Turkish Cypriot products sold in the Greek Cypriot community via the Green Line must comply with the applicable EU standards, and this is regularly verified by the Cypriot authorities.

As an economist, it's clear to me that good money chases away bad money - so the more legal green line trade we have, the less smuggling will there be. It's good to have a regulated trade because it naturally crowds out the smuggling of goods which has increased unfortunately in the last couple of years, taking advantage of the exchange rate between the euro and TL and other factors.

The more we work on having good green line trade the more we decrease smuggling. In addition, we welcome very much that six processed foods of non-animal origin have been lifted from a ban on Green Line trade by the Republic of Cyprus. This is essential because this lifting of the ban was requested already in 2018 by the Commission for all processed foods of non-animal origin. We are going in the right direction, but there is more to do, these are just six foods.

These six products - olive oil, jam, fruit juices, carob beans, halva, and tahini - are very important, very well-known products.

To clarify, there was an obligation by the Republic of Cyprus to allow all these products?

What happened is that in 2018 the Commission made clear to the authorities of the Republic of Cyprus that the ban on Green Line trade in processed foods of non-animal origin was not in compliance with the acquis, with EU legislation.

What is the state of play on the implementation of the PDO file for halloumi?

Getting to the PDO was a long journey. These couple of years we have moved faster and faster and last year we got PDO status for halloumi/ hellim, it was a major breakthrough, very symbolic and substantial. This is an economically crucial product for the island, its brand. If you walk into any supermarket or restaurant in Brussels you always find Cyprus halloumi.

We are setting up a working group with the representatives of the two communities, which will start work very soon.

There is also the issue of controls. By now we have two Turkish Cypriot producers that have applied for PDO inspections by Bureau Veritas, one in February and one in June. The inspections have not yet started because there are some technical and legal aspects that need to be resolved. I have been speaking to Bureau Veritas and the Agriculture Ministry of the Republic of Cyprus and I am sure these will be resolved quite soon.

As we said before, for all products to go through the green line they need to be compliant with all veterinary and sanitary controls of the EU. We are currently exploring with the competent authority, that is the Agriculture Ministry, and with BV if the company can conduct these inspections as well.

In the meantime, the Commission is implementing several projects helping Turkish Cypriots qualify for the PDO label, to meet EU food safety and animal health standards, we are helping them eradicate animal diseases affecting sheep or goats and to separate milk collection chains, to ensure traceability.

Between 2021 and 2024, we have envisaged spending 40 million to help the Turkish Cypriot community to meet both PDO and health requirements.

Recently some Turkish Cypriot politicians have been making statements in favor of a two-state solution. Does this affect the relation of the community with the EU?

We certainly have good relations with our TC interlocutors and I have regular calls with Ersin Tatar and with others. But let me be honest, these statements certainly do not help and we regret the insistence on a two-state solution as they contradict the UN framework and Security Council resolutions and are not acceptable to the UN or to the EU. I continue to strongly believe that a bizonal bicommunal federation as envisaged in the UN framework remains the best and the only way forward.

Furthermore, the declared objective of the aid programme is to facilitate reunification. This is very clear. I have seen some political figures in the Turkish Cypriot community trying to downplay the sizeable EU support to their community, but you cannot downplay a programme that has allocated 623 million for the benefit of the community in the last 15 years. This substantial amount of money has produced positive change in many sectors. Besides energy, the environment and food there is also the agricultural sector, civil society and education, where we have offered 1800 scholarships for studies and internships in EU member states for Turkish Cypriots.

Also during the pandemic, our financial aid has allowed thousands of small and medium Turkish Cypriot businesses to stay alive, from hairdressers to bartenders. I think that our programme has really percolated down to society, we have financed many CBMs, and our actions are being seen by Turkish Cypriots.

Turkish Cypriot civil society and the opposition have been speaking out on issues of rule of law and freedom of expression in the north. What can the EU do to help?

As I was saying, I have regular talks with Mr Tatar, and as I said in a tweet, in one of our latest talks I raised the issue of the financial protocol and raised the point that the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly of trade unions, media freedom are essential values and principles. The Aid programme has financed several projects in the Turkish Cypriot community to strengthen these principles.

We have a project on stronger, freer, more ethical journalism that we have implemented with the Turkish Cypriot journalist association until April 2022, as well as a current project called the human rights platform that monitors freedom of expression. So not only do I raise it in my normal and regular discussions with the Turkish Cypriot leadership, but we also have an aid programme helping these principles to thrive.

As an economist how do you assess ideas discussed in the north to introduce the euro?

The euro is the last step of any European integration. There are many other things, all the things that I have been speaking about, that need to come first. Once the integration is greater, one can also talk about that. But it is more of a consequence than a precondition.

There is also a discussion in the south on asking that the EU appoint a political envoy for the Cyprus Problem, separate from the technocrat that usually represents the Commission in the UN Good Offices.

The only thing of which I am aware is the same thing you are aware of, that the European Council of December 2021 said that they will appoint a new representative to the UN Good Office's mission once formal settlement talks in the UN framework resume.

I believe that once the negotiations resume it will be very important for the integrity of the reunification process that the EU is present and involved from the very beginning. The Commission has very relevant expertise and can ensure the conformity of the political agreement with EU legislation.

It is also very clear that we fully support the resumption of negotiations within the UN framework and we fully support the efforts of the UNSG to seek common ground between the two parties. The Aid Programme of the European Commission is very important because with its activities it encourages the resumption of talks, and the island's reunification and contributes to strengthening the links between the two communities.

[This article was translated from its Greek original]

Cyprus  |  EU  |  UN

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