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10 Jan 2007 : Column 125WH—continued

I am conscious that lots of opportunities have come and gone, one of which was Cypriot membership of the EU. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) said that the Greek Cypriots got
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membership of the EU as a reward for voting no in the referendum, but that is a complete distortion of the facts. Cyprus joined because it passed the criteria for membership of the EU, and it was rightfully allowed to come in, as Bulgaria and Romania have been this year.

There is another opportunity, which is where the backstop is found. I agree with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), whom I compliment on his knowledge and congratulate on securing the debate, that the longer this problem goes on, the more difficult it is to heal and the more likely partition is. That is against the interests of the people, who want to go back to the generally happy co-existence and lives that they had before. The one backstop issue is the Turkish application to join the EU. I support the application, but they have to understand that they must abide by the rules and comply with the requirements put on them by the EU. Therefore, they will have to open their ports to the lawfully recognised Cypriot Government and open up trade.

I am a realist and I appreciate that such matters are unlikely to be easy in an election year, but by the end of the year, there will have been both parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey. I request that the ground is laid now with the UN and led by the EU and our Government, so that immediately the Turkish elections are over, there is a serious and determined effort to ensure that the position is resolved. That is not impossible. There are issues to do with housing, land and disappearances, but the will is there among the people if only international pressure and leadership can be given to the politicians. I hope that the UK Government will be slightly more effective in their leadership than they sadly have been in respect of a country of whom we are the guarantor but whose guarantee we have not upheld for the past 33 years.

3.29 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you for calling me to give the first of the winding-up speeches at the conclusion of this debate, Mr. O’Hara. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing it and on bringing to bear his considerable knowledge on this issue. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all hon. Members when I say that it was interesting to hear his views, insights and expertise on Cyprus.

Those of us who regularly attend foreign affairs debates in this Chamber, some of whom are present, will know that certain issues provoke strong views and opinions, and—dare I say it?—a high attendance. They tend to relate to the parts of the world with the most intractable problems, such as Kashmir, Israel and Palestine, and Cyprus, which is the subject of this debate. Many people bring to bear their own opinion and do not seek to give a rounded or particularly balanced view—rightly, because there is no reason why they should do so.

Such people seek to make the case on behalf of the side of the debate to which they feel more sympathetic. The British Government need to avoid that position, and it is one that I intend to avoid this afternoon, regardless of my personal sympathies. Our country and our Government need to act as an honest broker and to be regarded by both sides—if I may put it in those
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terms—as being capable of making dispassionate judgments, rather than as being involved in the process to advance the interests of one side at the expense of the other.

I shall break down my comments into three sections. I shall discuss the role that the United Kingdom Government can play, the role that the European Union can play, and the role that the United Nations has played and can continue to play. As has been said by other hon. Members, Britain clearly has a bigger interest and role in Cyprus than any other country, with the exception of Greece and Turkey. We have an historical interest in Cyprus—it was directly under our control until 1960—a diplomatic interest and the strategic interest of British bases, which have been mentioned. Given the unrest that is an ongoing problem in the middle east, the bases take on an even greater significance.

Other hon. Members have made the legitimate criticism that the British Government have, to some extent, allowed this issue in Cyprus to fester and that they have not been sufficiently energetic or proactive—I use a slightly dreaded and made-up word—in their response to the ongoing, perennial problems there. Such a criticism was made by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who said that the Government need to show greater urgency in their approach.

I disagree with the comment made by the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) that the European Union ought not to take a particularly active role because Greece and the Greek bit of Cyprus are members of the EU and Turkey and the Turkish part of Cyprus are not. The EU has a significant role to play.

Cyprus is evidently a European issue—it operates within that context—so the onus is on the EU to demonstrate that it can be used as a diplomatic tool to bring pressure to bear to solve problems within it. On many occasions, it singularly failed to do that in respect of the Balkans. We should not have to ask bigger powers in other parts of the world to intervene to solve problems on our own doorstep that we should be able to take a lead in resolving.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I was listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman was saying about the European Union, and I wonder whether he would respond to the following point. I was attracted to an idea proposed many times by the distinguished former Member of Parliament for Foyle, John Hume, who suggested that the EU should perhaps consider setting up a commission for peace and reconciliation. Given the experience of different European countries and the EU in this field, it could harness all its forces and concentrate them within one commission to address the particular issue in Cyprus.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, as the option is well worth exploring. People will have views on who should comprise such a commission. It is often the case with such commissions that the outcome is predictable once the membership of the commission has been determined, and, no doubt, plenty of wrangling would be involved. The United Kingdom has expertise to bring to bear in resolving
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disputes where two peoples with different persuasions regard a territory as being more rightfully theirs, if I may put it in those terms. I might come back to that briefly.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) rightly said that one lever that the EU had in this respect went when the Greek part of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, although that does mean that it is around the table, engaged in the process at the meetings and aspires to have membership of the eurozone. I can understand why that might be regarded as a cause for concern by some, including the hon. Member for Derby, North, who have suspicions—if I may put words in his mouth—about the imbalance, as they would see it. However, it is also a potential opportunity for Greece and the Greek Cypriots to be involved in a forum in which the United Kingdom is also actively involved.

Simon Hughes: May I gently suggest something to my hon. Friend? I might be wrong, but I think that he needs to be a bit careful about this point. I understand that Cyprus as a whole joined the EU, but that the EU rules cannot apply to the north part of it, because that is not under the control of the Cypriot Government. So all of Cyprus, not just part of it, is a member of the EU. That is an important legal point, as he will understand.

Mr. Browne: Throughout my brief parliamentary career I have always learned things when I have taken interventions from my hon. Friend. That was a valuable and useful clarification, for which I thank him.

The other lever, which exists to this day, is produced by the Turkish aspirations to membership of the EU—a theme that has been touched on in this debate—and the financial assistance that the EU provides to the part of Cyprus in which Turkish Cypriots live. We know that Turkey is an important strategic ally of the United Kingdom, particularly because it is a member of NATO. I have always found that the ability to make concessions or to enter into diplomatic negotiations is compromised by the immediate prospect of an election, but perhaps after the elections in Turkey this year an opportunity will exist, and I urge the Government to grasp it fully.

I am also keen to speak about the United Nations, as it clearly has a role to play. I hope that the Government will push for a revival of the Annan plan or a successor to it. We clearly need to seek a solution that has a process of checks and balances, so that no side feels that it is being unfairly treated. There need to be balances, and security needs to be given to people on an ongoing basis. The hard bit is always that such processes will require give and take, and that comes back to the intervention made by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis).

It is legitimate to ask why the Greek Cypriots so overwhelmingly rejected the option that was put before them. Rather than condemning them or understanding them, as different people would seek to do, it is right to ask what were the reasons for their decision, which of them were legitimate and how they can be accommodated. Any successor to the Annan plan will need to accommodate and take on board the points
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made about troops. Any peaceful solution requires a degree of flexibility. That is the lesson that many would draw from Northern Ireland, and I think that people need to draw it more widely in this case.

The point has been made that people in most parts of the world have fairly simple and not particularly political aspirations: they want to get on, get a job and provide for their family. Everyone in this debate understands that there are keenly felt views on all sides, but the political process owes the residents and inhabitants of Cyprus an obligation to ensure that they can improve their quality of living in a peaceful and stable environment. Britain, the EU and the UN all have a leading role to play.

3.39 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in such a good debate. I join other Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing it and on the knowledgeable way in which he opened it. There have been some excellent contributions, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who gave a moving personal insight into some of the tragedies that occur when an island such as Cyprus is divided as it has been. It is also a pleasure once again to follow the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne). True to his diplomatic lineage, he teasingly alluded to the fact that he has personal sympathies, but left us hanging, wondering what they might be.

The debate is timely, because the important and difficult issue of Cyprus is in danger of slipping down the order of priorities. The hon. Gentleman’s securing of the debate gives us a chance to reinforce its importance and to remind the Minister and the Government, gently, of the importance that hon. Members attach to seeking a resolution. There is an apparent state of deadlock that is really quite frustrating. There was palpable frustration in the opening speech, similar to that which many people in Cyprus feel about the lack of movement and about the difficulty that can sometimes now exist in seeing a possibility of movement.

The opportunity for discussion about Cyprus is particularly welcome when so many other pressing international issues could easily divert our attention. It is also well timed in view of the arrival of a new Secretary-General at the United Nations, which the hon. Member for Taunton mentioned. Kofi Annan clearly had very great experience in dealing with Cyprus, and he invested a huge amount of personal energy into seeking a settlement. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will do everything possible to ensure that his successor picks up that baton with the same degree of determination for progress.

As my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, Cyprus is a particular problem for the United Kingdom, both as a guarantor power and as a Commonwealth partner of Cyprus within the European Union. That is a special status that applies
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only to Cyprus, Malta and the United Kingdom, and it should give us cause and opportunity to exercise influence.

The Opposition are in broad agreement with the Government’s objectives and efforts for progress. We share their desire to see a settlement that enjoys the consent of both communities, which is the only kind of settlement that can work. We want Cyrpus reunited, and as a step on the way to that elusive goal we want warm and positive relationships in trade and free movement to be established and improved for the Cypriot people.

From time to time the Opposition have differed from the Government in style and emphasis. We took the view, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, that it was counter-productive for the British Government to criticise the electorate of the Republic of Cyprus for voting against the Annan plan. We also questioned whether more progress might have been possible before the opening of the Turkish accession negotiations during the British presidency. To the extent that there has been a loss of trust in the relationship between the British and Cypriot Governments, we think that that will make progress harder. However, we share a common purpose, and we wish the Government well in their efforts.

As has been said, a resolution to the problems of Cyprus is increasingly tied up with the whole question of Turkish membership of the EU and the debate on that. However, it is essential that such a resolution should not become contingent on Turkish accession, and it must not wait for eventual Turkish accession. There must be no linkage in the timetable. Nevertheless, there is no question that the process of movement towards accession provides a crucial opportunity for applying pressure and encouragement for settlement. Before Christmas, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister were clear in their view that the suspension of eight chapters of the accession negotiations for Turkey was too severe a penalty, and we wholeheartedly endorse that view. I particularly look forward to the Minister’s comments—I want to leave time for him to make them—on how that process can be brought back on track in the context of the Cyprus question.

I am sure that the Minister will also agree that it would be particularly unwelcome if those EU member states that are antagonistic to Turkey were allowed to exploit the Cyprus question as a means of blocking accession talks. In that context I hope that the Minister’s winding-up speech will include an assessment of what can be done to work towards lifting the suspension of the negotiations on certain chapters, and of the timetable for that. Given that Germany, in particular, is less than enthusiastic—I think that that is a fair view of its position—about Turkish membership, will he also say whether there are any prospects for priority to be accorded to such related matters by the Germany EU presidency?

Along with the hardening of attitudes in Cyprus, one of the least helpful things that could happen would be for Turkey’s experiences in relation to Cyprus and to accession to cause it to turn away from accession. The 19 December issue of the Financial Times reported, I believe, that Turkish support for EU membership had already fallen by that point from 75 to 50 per cent.,
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largely because of the experiences of the last year. I hope that the Minister will be able to give hope in that regard.

Many of the problems are difficult and complex diplomatic issues. Some, however, can be addressed at a more local and human level. I hope that the Minister will focus not only on the big and apparently intractable diplomatic issues, but on the smaller ways in which we might be able to help to build relationships between communities across the green line.

3.47 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I welcome the opportunity to discuss Cyprus and the points raised, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) on securing the debate. The Government have always supported efforts to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement in Cyprus, and I am sure that the Chamber will agree that the search for a settlement must remain a priority for the Government. Cyprus matters to the United Kingdom. That is why we worked so hard to achieve EU membership for Cyprus—a point too often overlooked—and why we want to work closely with Cyprus to develop a new relationship with it as an EU partner.

After more than three decades of efforts to find a solution, it is a matter of great regret that the island remains divided. The communities on the island, and indeed the stability of the region and the international community as a whole, continue to suffer as a result. We firmly believe that every effort must be made to achieve a comprehensive settlement. As my hon. Friend said, however, time is not on our side, and that has been illustrated by many of the points made. The longer the current division continues, the more intractable the problems become.

My hon. Friend raised in particular the concerns of Greek Cypriots about the continuing situation in the north of the island. Property, the presence of Turkish troops and the number of Turkish nationals living in the north are a matter of great concern for all who take an interest in Cyprus. Unfortunately, those are at the heart of the Cyprus problem and they underline the urgent need to achieve a settlement.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) raised the extent to which the Foreign Office has sought to discourage British citizens from buying property in the north. Through our travel advice, our website and in responses to specific queries, the Government have explained fully that property issues are closely linked with the political situation on the island, and that there is a clear risk of purchasers facing legal proceedings in the courts of the Republic of Cyprus. The Foreign Office updated its advice in December to reflect the more rigorous implementation of existing legislation by the Greek Cypriot authorities. We have set out clearly the potential consequences for those contemplating purchases.

It has been more than two years since the failed referendums on the island. Enough time has passed to take stock of the lessons learned and it is time to look forward again. I expect both communities to engage with the relaunched UN process and to agree on both the technical and the substantive issues in order to find
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a solution. The messages from the international community are clear: we all want early substantive progress. In the past year there have been encouraging developments on the path towards a resumption of settlement negotiations and some causes for concern, which hon. Members raised.

The Government welcomed the EU’s historic decision on 3 October 2005 to open accession negotiations with Turkey. The strategic case for Turkish accession is well recognised throughout the House, and the decision to open negotiations was of great significance for the United Kingdom, the EU, including Cyprus, and Turkey.

The past year—2006—was more difficult for Turkey’s accession negotiations, but I am pleased that all EU member states agreed last month that negotiations should continue. At the same time, the Council’s decision not to open negotiations on eight chapters makes it clear that Turkey must abide by its obligations on opening its ports to vessels from all EU countries, including those from the Republic of Cyprus.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, the UK’s support for Turkish accession to the EU does not come at the cost of sidelining excellent relations with the Republic of Cyprus. Steady progress in Turkey’s accession process will encourage normalisation of relations between Turkey and Cyprus, which should, in turn, help to increase trust and interaction between the parties and to provide a better context for a resumption of negotiations.

A significant achievement in 2006 was the approval of the financial aid regulation for northern Cyprus by EU member states. That €259 million package represents one of the highest levels of EU aid per capita anywhere. The money will be used to fund practical projects, developed in partnership with the Turkish Cypriot community, which should improve the quality of life for ordinary Turkish Cypriots. However, we recognise that aid alone will not be enough to lift the isolation of the Turkish Cypriot community and fulfil the commitments made by EU Foreign Ministers in April 2004. For that reason, we shall continue to support the efforts of the Commission and the German presidency to agree a direct trade regulation, and we hope that progress will be achieved in 2007. We also expect all political and practical obstacles to trade across the green line to be removed to allow full use of the existing regulation governing trade. Our aim should be to increase economic integration on the island and the convergence of the north of Cyprus towards full involvement in the European Union.

The more that Turkish Cypriots are left isolated by the international community, the more the elements in the north of Cyprus that oppose a just and lasting Cyprus settlement will flourish. We must not allow that to happen.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What is the Minister’s view on direct flights to northern Cyprus? Would that not be one way of helping to break down the impasse?

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