Cyprus Foreign Minister: Economic disparity spurring secessionism in the EU

The European Union, reeling from the migrant crisis and a series of secessionist movements, is now looking to change itself. As the distance between the EU heavyweights and its smaller members grows, will the two-speed Europe plan prevail? Or will the waves of crisis alienate the members from each other? We ask the foreign minister of Cyprus, Ioannis Kasoulides.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Mr. Kasoulides, it’s really great to have you in our program today, welcome.

Ioannis Kasoulides: Thank you very much.

SS: So I want to start with the entire Russian sanctions. I know that the Parliament of Cyprus actually voted for lifting the sanctions, but you didn’t go as far as vetoing Brussels’ decision on the issue. Why? I mean, what can they do to you if you actually vetoed?

IK: Listen. We have never been happy with the decision regarding the sanctions. We don’t believe that sanctions can succeed. And we hope that the circumstances in the future will permit their lifting as soon as possible. We have agreed on the sanctions, and, as you say, we have never used veto. One of the reason being that we wanted to demonstrate our solidarity with a number of member states who feel threatened much more than others. It would not have been a good image, to appear divided as European Union, and you know we cherish very much the fact that we are members of the EU. We are asking for solidarity on matters that do concern us and therefore we show solidarity on matters that concern the others. But I believe and I am hopeful that this matter matures so that, hopefully, this can take a positive direction.

SS: So when do you think a turning point will happen? Because, like you have said, sanctions are actually bad for all parties involved. Not only for Cyprus economy, for Germany; Italy has lost billions of dollars and 200 000 jobs. When do you think that turning point...?

IK: First of all, I agree with you that with sanctions we punish ourselves. We want to punish others but at the same time we punish ourselves. That’s why we are feeling this sort of fatigue about applying sanctions. Now I feel that it will be shown that once all sides apply what has been decided in the Normandie Process regarding the Minsk Agreements then it will be the moment when the lifting of sanctions should begin.


SS: I want to talk a bit about migration, which is also a big topic regarding Cyprus. According to International Organisation for Migration, the inflow of refugees in 2017 has actually noticeably decreased. But the arrivals to Cyprus have increased twice from 2016. How are you coping with it? Does it feel like maybe you are taking the burden with all of Europe right now with migration?


IK: No, I don’t think… It would not be correct to say that we are taking the burden that Greece and Italy have been taking all alone. You’re right that the numbers have doubled. Most of the boats we get are coming from Turkey and they are coming composed of Syrian refugees mainly. I think that the refugee crisis, nowadays, coming from Syria, has eased up, not just for Cyprus but also for Greece and for Europe in general. One of the reasons, I think, is the relative peace that has been agreed for Syria, the de-escalation zones, the fact that people do not need to flee to save their lives. I don’t accept that it’s because of Turkey that refugees have stopped going to Greece. It’s because of the closure of the Balkan route, western Balkan route, that the refugees don’t go and dock there, in Greece.


SS: But has the EU-Turkey deal made it any easier for you in terms of refugee entries?


IK: No, on the contrary. We have seen the doubling, as you have said. Well,  the EU-Turkey  statement, agreement.. whatever you call it, it’s in theory. Because the way that Turkey is behaving at the moment and in Turkey itself, regarding the rule of lawful democracy and human rights, does not allow the European Union  to  proceed, for instance, with the visa liberalization, with the upgrading of the Customs Union, even with the opening of  chapters, I think we are in this situation at the moment.


SS: But also, in regard to Cyprus, Amnesty International says that the refugees are treated pretty badly. They are detained without trial, some refugee families are just split… Why is this happening?


IK: This is an absolute lie. And that’s the first time I hear it.


SS: That’s Amnesty International.


IK: I don’t know, you spotted it before I did. Well, of course they are treated very well. It is known that the refugees in Cyprus are received according to the standards, the hotspots work properly, the refugees are not detained, they’re free to circulate in Cyprus. The difference is that by being in Cyprus, which is an island, they cannot leave to go anywhere else. They are stuck in Cyprus. And this is the only factor that kept us from having the big waves of refugees as in Greece or Italy.


SS: Are you worried still that the refugees will be infiltrated by terrorists and that Cyprus will be used as a route to Europe?


IK: Of course we are. Listen, we are. We are. But I don’t agree with those who confuse terrorists with refugees. I don’t agree with those who say that we should stop being humane and treating humanely the arrivals particularly of those who are in need of protection and are seeking asylum with the issue of terrorists, because the movement of terrorists was taking place before the waves of the refugees, and it has been shown that the radicalized young people were moving through Turkey to Syria and then from Syria through Turkey to Europe, and if it coincided in certain times with the refugees and they infiltrated through these, it may be so, but I think these are two different things.


SS: So now you don’t fear that Cyprus is still one of the preferred routes for ISIS recruits, because it used to be.

IK: It used to be an alternative route. That is to say that when everybody started becoming vigilant about who goes in and out of Turkey, some of them tried to use the occupied part of Cyprus to go to Turkey through that way and go to Syria, but we have been doing now vigilant surveillance on this, and we don’t allow this to happen.


SS: Foreign Minister, I want to talk a bit about Brexit, because it has touched upon every single member of the European Union, especially Cyprus, because British military bases are actually on the island. What is Cyprus’ position regarding these bases now that Britain is exiting the EU?


IK: Well, the British bases were in Cyprus before we joined the European Union and before the UK joined the European Union. So the issue is not about the presence of the bases but about the relationship that should be agreed on, regarding the rights of Cypriot citizens that live or work inside the bases and this is the object of negotiations between us and the government of the United Kingdom under the aegis of Brussels in order to include it in the withdrawal agreement, where we are aiming to copy exactly what was happening when the UK was in the European Union to apply it when the UK would be outside of the European Union.


SS: Also I realize that UK brings a lot to the Cypriot economy trade, towards investment… Are things going to change now that the United Kingdom is exiting the EU?


IK: Well I hope it doesn’t, we are not there yet, there are going to be two agreements between the UK and the EU. One is the withdrawal agreement. It has to do with the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU, it has to do with the deuce about the United Kingdom to the budget of the European Union and the issue of the Northern Ireland and, as I have said, the issue of the British bases and some others. Then it will be the negotiations, probably after December, for the future link. Then, there is going to be the decision: is it going to be the Customs Union , is it going to be participation in the single market – this have not yet been clarified. But it is in the interest of Cyprus and in the interest of the United Kingdom that the trade, the services, the investment, the relations continue as they have been.


SS: Foreign Minister, what if there is no deal between the Brussels and the United Kingdom, because it is tough right now, very tough, they are fighting about it. What would the implications be for Cyprus?


IK: They are not going to be good. And we will lose out, both us and the United Kingdom, and as for the United Kingdom, they will lose out to all 27 member states. So I don’t think that this is in the interest of either side to contemplate this scenario. They will have to make all the effort necessary to reach agreements.


SS: But your country, along with Spain and Ireland, has been actually allowed to talk directly to the UK.


IK: Just for the bases.


SS: Oh just for the bases.


IK: Yes.


SS: So you can’t really affect the whole issue through that channel, right?


IK: No. No. We are united, the 27, as I have said to you before about this meaning of solidarity between the member states. This applies to this case as well.


SS: So after Brexit happened, which came as a shock for the European Union members, there’s a lot of talk among the European leaders about “multi-speed Europe”, which would actually mean that countries that want to integrate tighter would have to move faster, and whoever can’t or doesn’t want can just lag behind. Where do you see Cyprus in this process?


IK: First of all, in order to agree on this principle unanimity is needed. We are not against this concept of those that are willing and want to and are capable of doing so, to proceed in this direction on certain policies, not on everything. Now, we say that for as long as the countries that take decisions about a program that is not going to be for everybody, but only for the willing, the terms of participation should not be prohibitive for others to participate either from the beginning or in other time in the future. Let’s say we decide about… defense. It should not be prohibitive for Cyprus to participate in one program of defense, because Cyprus has no air force. I’m giving you the example of how this... . So, whatever they decide, there should be no factors prohibiting the participation of others.


SS: But when they talk about multi-speed Europe, from what I understand, it’s mostly about economic integration, in the first place.


IK: No, because the single market will still be there and will not be touched. The main factor of economic integration is that we have a single market – without customs, without any obstacles on the road. It is not for economic integration, it’s for other issues of participation. If they talk about  economic integration, perhaps, on financial issues, I don’t know for certain.


SS: From what I understood, listening to president Macron or chancellor Merkel, is that EU is stagnating right now because of the economic disparity between its members. Because some are so developed, like France and Germany, they have to drag everyone else behind. Do you not think that if this “multi-speed Europe” takes place then the disparity, economic disparity between the members will actually stagnate the EU.


IK: That would be very wrong, if what motivates this system would be the economic disparity. Everybody that is listening to me now should be careful. It’s because of the economic disparity that there are separatist tendencies in Spain, there’s one in northern Italy, there’s another one in northern Belgium and so on and so forth.


SS: So you feel that if this “multi-speed” thing goes into action, the disparity will grow even further.


IK: The disparity is within member states. Not between member states, come on. This cannot be done.


SS: I was talking to Austria’s former chancellor, mister Schüssel,and he actually said that this whole proposal of multi-speed Europe shouldn’t be taken as something that’s going to happen today or tomorrow, it’s more of a threat or wake-up call to those who are actually lagging behind. What do you think?


IK: It could be. But I repeat, I don’t think that the term “multi-speed Europe” is correct. It’s more about specific issues and programs where some want to participate and some others don’t want to. And I add that it should not be prohibitive for those that didn’t want to, but now want to join.

SS: So the latest talks on ending the split of Cyprus between Turkish and Greek parts collapsed one more time, and Turkey, which has troops in northern Cyprus, says that it will never withdraw its troops. Do you feel like reunification can be done with Turkish troops present?


IK: No. We want to be a normal country, like any other country in the world. And we can accept a timetable of the withdrawal of Turkish troops for as long as it takes, but the end will be that one day Cyprus should be without any foreign army like any other state in the world.


SS: Let’s say Turkish Cyprus unites with Greek Cyprus, that would actually make them also citizens of the EU…

IK: Of course.

SS: Do you think they would want that?

IK: It’s just that there is no Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus. There is one part that is occupied by Turkey and one part that is free. All the citizens of Cyprus, be it Greek Cypriots or Turkey Cypriots, are Cyprus citizens, therefore European citizens. And at least 110 000 Turkish Cypriots out of 200 000, they are holders of Cypriot-European passports.


SS: Once again, I want to turn to chancellor Merkel, because she is pushing to cut funding for the development of Turkey’s EU bid. Does Nikosia support this move?


IK: Yes. The situation now in Turkey… I’m not talking about Cyprus, for the moment, I’m talking about the general situation in Turkey. You know, who wants to join the European Union, there are Copenhagen Criteria that one has to fulfill. Turkey began negotiations with partially fulfilling the Copenhagen Criteria, and now it fulfills none. So, the decision was not to stop negotiations, but to freeze, to suspend negotiations. The decision is that nothing can move, waiting for better days in Turkey. But we also have particular reasons. As Cyprus, how can we accept the modernization of the Customs Union agreement when the first, the current Customs Union does not apply to Cyprus because Turkey does not recognize Cyprus. How can we accept visa liberalization, when we have no relations between the Justice and Home Affairs authorities of Turkey with ours and without a readmission agreement applying to everybody? And so forth.


SS: So with the reunification process still up in the air, how is this going to affect, what does it mean for the EastMed pipeline project?


IK: The EastMed pipeline project has been agreed on by four countries: Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Israel. It is going ahead.


SS: It’s going forward with no problem?


IK: Doesn’t matter what they say. The issue of reunification is an independent matter. The talks have not collapsed, as you have said, they have been suspended. I am hopeful they will resume immediately after the presidential elections in Cyprus and the elections within the Turkey separate community. We have been doing this for years and years. One day we will find the solution.


SS: Good luck with everything, thanks a lot for this interview, foreign minister, thank you very much.


IK: Thank you very much. Thank you.