Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 11th December 1996.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Davis David Davis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 1:15 pm, 11th December 1996

I thank the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) for this latest opportunity to discuss the situation in Cyprus. I join him in welcoming the mayor of Famagusta and others to the country and to the House.

This is a regular event, and it reflects the importance of Cyprus to the House and to Britain. However, I am saddened by the familiarity of so much of the ground that we cover in these debates. That is a reflection not on the eloquence of hon. Members of all parties, either today or in previous debates, but on the regularity with which, year in, year out, we have heard a familiar and painful tale, of suffering and injustice, tension and mistrust, intransigence and missed opportunity—in short, a tale of failure.

To anyone in Cyprus, in the House or anywhere else, who is weary of the effort to find a solution to the problem, my message today is simple: this is a time—perhaps the time—for vigilance. We must be alert to the dangers of the situation as it stands today and to the opportunity that exists to shape a settlement before it becomes even more difficult.

We have seen far too much of the dangers already this year. The events of one hot week in August were a sickening reminder of what the United Nations Security Council means when it repeats that the status quo is unacceptable. The year just ending will be remembered in Cyprus for those and other senseless and unnecessary killings and as a year in which the ratchet of arms purchases and reinforcements on both sides clicked remorselessly round.

If 1996 is marked down as a year of danger, can 1997 come to be seen as a year of opportunity grasped? We in the Government cannot answer that question by ourselves, but we can and will recognise both our duty and our capacity to contribute to an answer. We will continue to support with action and energy all friends of a viable and lasting solution in Cyprus.

Why should 1997 be a year of progress? Does it truly offer better prospects for settlement than other years? Hon. Members will have heard about enough windows of opportunity to glaze a crystal palace, but so far those windows have all remained stubbornly shut. I should not be surprised to hear murmurs of cynicism if I were to speak of yet another, as our hopes have been raised only to be dashed on a great many occasions.

Our disappointment on those occasions has been great, but the real losers have been the people of Cyprus. Over the past 30 years, they have been expelled from their homes and prevented from travelling freely in their country, and their children have grown up knowing only a land divided.

Today's debate is well timed. Next week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will visit Cyprus. That will be the first such visit by a British Foreign Secretary since Cyprus gained independence in 1960. His visit is an expression of his deeply held personal commitment to helping to overcome at long last the tragic division of the island, and reflects the Government's determination to support the United Nations Secretary-General by using our best endeavours to make 1997 a year of real progress in Cyprus.

Our long-standing friendship with Cyprus, our close cultural and economic ties, and Britain's status as a guarantor power ensure our continuing interest in settlement. We owe it to the Cypriots of both communities to strive whole-heartedly for a solution that will allow all Cypriots to live peaceably together.

Much has happened since our previous Adjournment debate on Cyprus in March this year. As the House knows, Britain has intensified its efforts to help find a solution. In May, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary appointed Sir David Hannay as his special representative for Cyprus. As he reminded the House on 25 October, that did not signal a separate British initiative; rather, we consider it vital for Britain, the United States and the European Union actively to support the United Nations. All countries with an interest in promoting a safe, prosperous future for Cyprus must work closely and constructively together if we are to succeed in the search for a settlement.

Sir David Hannay has made three visits to the island, during which he probed positions on both sides and tried to identify areas of possible flexibility. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will take a similar approach during his visit. We believe that the basis for a political settlement is already on the table. That is the result of hard, painstaking work over many years under the leadership of the United Nations, which has pursued the international commitment to Cyprus with great tenacity.

How can we once again talk of a window of opportunity? It is because of the opportunity that has been created by the prospect of the island's accession to the European Union. I mentioned the importance of that in my remarks in the debate on 6 March. As I said then, we regard the prospect of accession as a positive stimulus to an intensive search for a lasting settlement.

In that sense, the decision of the Foreign Affairs Council on 6 March 1995 that accession negotiations with Cyprus should be opened six months after the end of the intergovernmental conference was an important milestone. It emphasised that accession should benefit both communities and mandated the Commission to develop contacts with the Turkish Cypriots to discover that community's detailed concerns about EU membership and to examine how they could be met.

Several EU emissaries have visited the island to discuss those matters, most recently the representative of the EU presidency, Ambassador Heaslip, and a member of the Commission, Mr. Serge Abou. It is clear that all Cypriots have much to gain from EU membership. That in turn should give them a strong incentive to find a mutually acceptable settlement, which would, we believe, bring European Union accession within easy reach. Membership offers not only the opportunity of the internal market and other material benefits but would give the Turkish Cypriot community in particular an acknowledged status in the wider world.

That is the 1997 window of opportunity; it means that each community has much to play for between now and the opening of accession negotiations, perhaps in early 1998, and that both are likely to be confronted by hard decisions. It is important that we underestimate neither the opportunity nor the difficulties.

The hon. Member for Tooting mentioned that, on 27 November, my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary answered questions in the House on Cyprus. Some hon. Members have expressed concern that the accession of Cyprus to the EU could not go ahead unless a settlement was in place. That is not a question for the British Government alone, but it may be useful if I set out clearly an objective assessment.

The accession of Cyprus to the European Union would be far easier if it involved both communities on the island, and took place after a settlement was achieved. Any other path to accession could only be much more difficult and complex. For example, how could a Government whose writ did not in practice extend over the whole island give firm assurances that they could fulfil the EU acquis on, say, freedom of movement over the whole island?

I invite hon. Members to weigh my words carefully. I stress that they do not, as some in both Britain and Cyprus have claimed, give Turkish Cypriots a veto over the settlement. That is emphatically not the Government's position; there can be no question of that. We welcome with hope and enthusiasm the prospect of Cyprus joining the European Union. We are determined to do what we can to help Cyprus along the path to joining it, but it would be neither honest nor helpful to ignore the difficulties that may lie ahead.

The economic benefits are clear. The single market would stimulate foreign investment in the north; the restoration of international links would pave the way for a boost to the tourist sector; and northern Cyprus would be eligible for significant cohesion payments.

It is essential that we ensure that the wider Turkish Cypriot community understands the solid advantages of membership. However, I must admit that, although many Turkish Cypriot business men understand the advantages of European Union accession, Turkish Cypriot leaders do not yet appear to be convinced that the prospect of EU membership is a passport to a brighter future for their community. As the House knows, EU accession remains controversial in their eyes.

Mr. Denktash and other leading Turkish Cypriots continue to argue that the application for membership of the Cyprus Government in 1990 was illegal, having been made without the involvement of Turkish Cypriots. They fear that, once Cyprus was in the Union, it would be impossible to defend vital Turkish Cypriot community interests, and that European Union law could be used to overturn controversial safeguards designed to protect them, even if they had been previously entrenched in a settlement. Most of all, they fear erosion of their relationship with Turkey, and of the security guarantee in article IV of the 1960 treaty of guarantee, if it were held to be incompatible with EU membership.

We and the Commission believe that those fears are unfounded. We are confident that, once a federal, bizonal, bicommunal settlement has been reached that offers safeguards to both communities along the lines envisaged by the international community, it would be possible for the EU to enshrine and safeguard such a settlement in the terms of accession.

I do not wish to make any of that sound easy. For example, an arms race is in full swing on the island. There is a greater density of modern weapons and men under arms in Cyprus than in almost anywhere else in the world. That is an expression of the deep insecurity felt by its people.

However, there can be no doubt that current security arrangements give each side a sense of security only at the expense of the other. Turkish troops in the north make Greek Cypriots feel insecure, and the increasingly sophisticated armaments in the south and the defence pact with Greece alarm Turkish Cypriots. The UN is urgently working on proposals for unmanning and unloading along the ceasefire lines. The United States has proposed arrangements for a ban on overflights by Greek and Turkish military aircraft. We strongly support those initiatives. All hon. Members, after this year's events, will understand their undoubted benefits.

Security is the most important issue that divides the two sides. There will be no settlement unless both are fully satisfied about it. It will also be the essential element in ensuring that the political settlement lasts, and that, once in place, it cannot be undermined by extremist elements on either side. How might progress on security be achieved? President Clerides recently suggested some ideas for progressive demilitarisation and the presence of an international military force. Combined with the security guarantees devised at the time of Cyprus's independence, to which the Turkish Cypriots attach such importance, they could yet offer a way forward.

If the security concerns of both communities can be addressed, it should not be impossible to find solutions to other difficulties. For example, it is not yet clear how the political equality of the two communities will be expressed in the new constitution; how much territory currently occupied by Turkish Cypriots will be returned to the Greek Cypriot administration; or—this is an issue that has come up in the House before—how those who became refugees in 1974 will be compensated. Those are all matters on which much remains to be done, and about which hard decisions will have to be made.

When my right hon. and learned Friend makes his historic visit to Cyprus next week—the first since 1960—he will discuss all those issues when he meets President Clerides and Mr. Denktash. His aim will be to help them find ways in which divides can be bridged and a secure and prosperous future for Cyprus assured. That is an aim that I hope every hon. Member can support.