Hope for a fresh settlement in Cyprus

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Derelict airliner at Nicosia airport
Image caption,
Nicosia airport was abandoned in 1974

There is small corner of Europe where time has stood still since 1974. Whole neighbourhoods lie deserted. Houses crumble gently into empty streets.

Cars that were once new and shiny sit enshrouded in dust in garages. Debris litters the runway of a former international airport, the solitary abandoned passenger jet a ghostly reminder of the tourists who used to arrive here daily.

Welcome to the "buffer zone" in Cyprus.

More than 40 years ago, this thin strip of land more than 100 miles (160km) long was hastily established after a coup inspired by Greece failed and Turkish forces invaded.

Since then, UN peacekeepers have patrolled the empty streets and manned the distant watchtowers that separate the Greek Cypriot south from the Turkish Cypriot north in this former British colony.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The buffer zone divides the Greek south of Cyprus from the Turkish north

For more than 40 years, this is how Cyprus has remained - a divided island in the eastern Mediterranean where no plan to end the conflict has ever quite overcome the status quo.

Until now, perhaps.

For politicians and diplomats are yet again heading for Geneva hoping that a solution might be in sight. After visiting Athens and Ankara last week, the UK's foreign office minister, Sir Alan Duncan, tweeted he was "hopeful" that a settlement may be in reach.

The aim is some kind of united but federal Cyprus where power is shared between the two communities.

How this might work in practice has defeated all previous diplomatic efforts.

Opportunity knocks

Next week the two sides will meet for a fresh round of talks. If they make progress, then ministers from the three countries that currently guarantee Cyprus's security - Britain, Greece and Turkey - will join.

The two British military bases on the island will be unaffected by the negotiations.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will represent the UK. New UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will be there.

If a deal looks likely, then it is even possible that British Prime Minister Theresa May might attend, along with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

Mrs May spoke to Mr Erdogan this weekend and they agreed that these talks were "a real opportunity to secure a better future for Cyprus and to guarantee stability in the wider region", according to the Mrs May's office.

But - and it is a big but - we have been here before. Previous attempts at a deal have been defeated by the complexities of the island's politics and tensions between Greece and Turkey. So no-one is guaranteeing success next week.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Cars from the 1970s are gathering dust in a show room in the buffer zone

And yet there are signs that this time there could be some progress. Diplomats say that both the Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades, and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mustafa Akinci, appear genuinely committed to achieving a deal.

For both of them failure is an unattractive option.

Turkey appears willing to see if progress can be made. Supporting northern Cyprus is expensive and President Erdogan has more room to manoeuvre than his predecessors.

A lot of progress has been made already in talks that have been going on for 19 months. But the sticking points that remain are significant.

  • How can the security of the Turkish Cypriots be guaranteed if Turkey's estimated 30,000 troops leave?
  • Should some stay or should Turkey retain the right to intervene?
  • If not, who or what could act as a guarantor - the UK? Or the EU, of which of course Cyprus is already a member?
  • How much more territory should Greek Cypriots gain to reflect the fact that they make up the majority of the island's population?
  • Where should the lines on the maps be drawn?
  • What should happen to the properties that Greek Cypriots had to abandon in 1974?
  • Should they get the right to take their old homes back or be compensated and if so by how much?
  • How should the two sides share power?
  • There is talk of a rotating presidency but how would that work and could a Turkish Cypriot president really represent the country from time to time at EU summits?

And then there is the really hard question - what kind of a deal would be acceptable to the peoples of Cyprus?

Any agreement hammered out in Geneva would not just have to be acceptable to both sides' negotiators and the governments of Greece and Turkey. It would also have to backed by the people in both north and south Cyprus in two referendums later this year. The last time there was a putative deal in 2004 it was overwhelmingly rejected by Greek Cypriots.

So there are hurdles ahead and no guarantees of success. But some diplomats are expectant. "I don't imagine we could be in a better place," said one. "But everything is very fluid and nothing will be easy."

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Any potential deal faces many sticking points

Even the chance of a deal is quickening pulses in UK government circles. Good news is scarce on the international stage at the moment, and a settlement in Cyprus would be a small beacon of hope.

It would be reaffirmation that talking and co-operating can produce results at a time when many countries seem to prefer using force.

It would allow Mrs May to show the world that - despite Brexit - Britain is still engaged in the world. And above all it would solve a problem that has bedevilled Greek-Turkish relations for so long and given headaches to both the EU and Nato

That is the prize up for grabs over the negotiating tables in Geneva next week.