by Giorgos Kakouris
In anticipation of Roberta Metsola's visit to Cyprus on September 9th, Kathimerini's George Kakouris sits down with the European Parliament President and gets her take on the Cyprus problem, recently discovered natural gas reserves and the issue behind Cyprus' "golden passport" scandal.
1) On the occasion of your visit to Cyprus on September 9th, what can be done in practical terms to encourage the two communities to re-engage in negotiations and for Turkey to stop interfering in Turkish Cypriot society and reverse actions such as those taken in Varosha?
As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, Cyprus is close to my heart and the ongoing division of an EU family member is an open wound.
The reunification of Cyprus is something that concerns the whole of the EU. The European Parliament strongly supports the resumption of negotiations to that end. I am aware that work with the various technical committees is ongoing, but the only option for a viable settlement of the Cyprus issue is the resumption of a purposeful dialogue based on the agreed UN framework and resolutions.
The EU and the international community at large have been supportive of President Anastasiades’ proposed Confidence Building Measures because they could genuinely add momentum to the process. I regret that our Turkish Cypriot friends have rejected them outright.
The government of Cyprus has duly recognized that its investment program was easily exploited, had weak oversight and correctly decided to terminate it some time ago.
Be that as it may, Turkey needs to show its commitment to good neighborly relations and to stop pushing for unacceptable and extreme proposals such as a two-state solution in Cyprus, contrary to the spirit and letter of the UN framework. Equally, the EU and the European Parliament in particular have been unequivocal in calling for Turkey to immediately reverse its actions in Varosha, which makes the prospect of reaching a settlement more difficult.
2) How can the European Parliament deliver on the needed message that Turkish Cypriots are citizens of the EU that need to be protected from economic and social control? What should the Cypriot government be doing to underline to the Turkish Cypriot community that its interests lie with the EU?
The Turkish Cypriots are, and have been since 2004, citizens of the European Union. For example, they can vote in the European Parliament’s elections and indeed be elected as MEPs. I should also mention that the EU has been supporting the Turkish Cypriot community through its financial assistance programs for the better part of two decades. Moreover, the EU funds several noteworthy projects, such as the protection of both Communities’ cultural heritage.
However, it is true that the passage of time sees the Turkish Cypriot economy and society becoming more vulnerable and restricted. The important point to make here is that the orientation of the Turkish Cypriot community is European and the future of the Turkish Cypriots lies in the EU.
After all, during the last round of negotiations for the settlement of the Cyprus issue, the EU had an active role so as to ensure compatibility with the EU acquis and adherence to EU values and principles. These values and principles matter; they will equip us to successfully navigate the huge global challenges that we must face together, such as security, migration, climate, or the shift to digitalization.
3) Natural gas has come once again to the forefront in the Eastern Mediterranean after recent discoveries in the area. Is there still a chance for energy, either from hydrocarbons or renewables, to become a catalyst for peace rather than conflict in the region?
The recent discoveries of significant natural gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus are important for two main reasons.
First, they promise the possibility to increase gas production in the EU without relying on third countries for the supply of energy. At a time when we are in need of substituting the Russian energy sources, the news is promising.
Secondly, the current crisis has drawn the EU Member States even closer to each other – we are coming up with common solutions to our common problems. It means that the discovery of big natural gas reserves in one country is good news for the entire bloc and strengthens us all. I do think that the common approach to energy can bring us still together and become a catalyst for peace and cooperation rather than a disrupting factor.
4) Half a year after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how does Europe safeguard its interests to prevent the war from becoming a protracted or frozen proxy conflict between the US and Russia? Do you think it’s possible for the war to end soon without Ukraine having to give up more lands in the east?
This war began, indeed, more than half a year ago with the unjustified attack by Putin on a sovereign state like Ukraine. We should not forget who the aggressor is here.
While ending the war is of course our main priority, we must also make sure that we avoid war fatigue.
We must remember that we are on the right side of history in this aggression, even if this task becomes long and tedious. Our support makes it bearable for Ukraine, which is not fighting anyone’s proxy war, but fighting for itself, also for us the Europeans, our values and our way of life. And if the conflict continues it will remain only Putin's fault and responsibility.
The EU was founded as a project in order to ensure peace on the European continent and that is what we stick to. Europe will not give in to the blackmail of an autocrat.
5) What other sanctions do you believe can realistically be taken by the EU against the Kremlin that would affect Vladimir Putin and help put an end to the war?
The EU has reacted from day one in a united and solidary manner. We have taken strong measures in all fields and we have already adopted seven packages of sanctions. I am pleased to see that with the seventh package of sanctions, certain loopholes should be closed and additional areas of interest are being restricted.
But it is always possible to do more and we need to explore different options to keep the pressure on Putin in order to end this war as soon as possible. In this context, the European Parliament has constantly called for more targeted and effective sanctions.
6) The bad economic situation following the pandemic and the increased energy prices could bring a difficult winter for all Europeans. Which steps should the EU be taking now to ensure sufficient energy and hearing and prevent internal political and social instability?
The energy crisis is the major point on the EU's agenda now. We need to collectively diversify our energy sources so that we, as the whole EU, are more resilient to disruptions.
Both the Commission and the Member States are in the process of doing just that. We have already agreed on the legal obligation to fill our storage facilities before winter.
Our RePowerEU program will be financing the faster transition into affordable renewable energy sources. There is plenty of steps also to be taken, like the idea to purchase energy collectively. But the most important thing will be to take decisions now. This cannot wait. We can act together to limit the impact: whether it is capping bills, fixing our pricing systems, or de-coupling the price of electricity from gas - there are things that we can do now, even temporarily to offset the immediate pressure while we implement long-term strategies.
If we act in unison, we will be strong enough to deal with soaring energy prices and high costs of living and prevent instability.
7) Do you believe that the European Parliament’s committee of inquiry into Pegasus should also focus on the role of Cyprus as a possible export location for NSO products? The Cypriot government is denying this, but NSO’s Transparency and Responsibility Report for 2021 names Cyprus, Bulgaria and Israel as three countries through which its products are exported.
The committee of inquiry was only recently set up and its work is ongoing. Over the next months, the Committee will thoroughly investigate alleged infringement or maladministration in the application of EU law in relation to the use of Pegasus and equivalent spyware surveillance software.
8) The Cypriot government considers the “golden passports” scandal closed, but the Commission’s infringement case is still open. What is your position on the country’s handling of the scandal and on whether the case should be forwarded to the Court of Justice?
As the Commission’s infringement case is still ongoing, it is more appropriate to first let the process conclude its course. Having said that, investment programs that lead to, effectively, EU citizenship are problematic. The European Parliament as a whole, and I personally, have on several occasions called for the closure of all such programs.
The government of Cyprus has duly recognized that its investment program was easily exploited, had weak oversight and correctly decided to terminate it some time ago. I am aware that legal investigations in Cyprus are ongoing.
9) Is enlargement a realistic prospect given the constant disappointments faced by the populations of the Western Balkans, particularly Albania and North Macedonia, in recent years? Isn’t there a danger of losing some of these countries and wouldn’t you say this is already happening in the case of Serbia?
Enlargement has always been seen as a transformative process for countries that want to look to Europe as their home. It is a fundamental process for the EU since its stability rests on the stability of its immediate neighborhood. The EU’s goal must now be focused on providing clarity for Western Balkan countries because they have been knocking on our doors for far too long. We are aware that the accession process is long, but it is also the guarantee that a state is ready to be a full-fledged part of our Union.
10) What outcomes would you expect to see to count the Conference for the Future of Europe as a successful exercise? Is treaty change likely to happen given the resistance of several governments to several ideas that were developed in it, such as the end of unanimity in foreign affairs or in enlargement?
The Conference on the Future of Europe will contribute to future policies to go in the direction in which the citizens are leading us. I strongly believe that there is a common feeling that we need to adapt to the new times in order to become more efficient in vital areas such as health, energy and defense.
We need to start this discussion, and this is why the European Parliament has called for a convention. We want to bring our citizens closer, so let´s talk.