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How secure is Britain’s toehold in Cyprus?

What does the UK’s bilateral agreement with Cyprus mean for Britain’s presence in the eastern Med?

Artillery Row

How should the UK negotiate with other interested parties on issues concerning the internal affairs of the remnants of the British Empire – its fourteen remaining British Overseas Territories? Does appeasing sometimes acquisitive neighbours in an effort to reduce rancour and obstructionism better secure the long-term viability of these outposts remaining British? Or does seeking such accommodation more likely “sell the pass” because it gives a foreign country a material stake in the disputed Territory which that power can subsequently leverage to disrupt the Territory’s  dependence towards Britain?

Over the last forty years, British foreign policy has veered between resolution and accommodation, sometimes switching between the two in a matter of months. In 1980 the Foreign Office calculated that getting into the good books of Argentina’s military junta was a higher strategic imperative than defending the wishes of less than 2,000 Falkland Islanders to remain British – discussions were duly entered into with Argentinian officials to cede the islands’ sovereignty to Argentina in return for a temporary leaseback. The revelation of this proposal and its speedy withdrawal following parliamentary outrage was the prologue to Argentina’s efforts to seize the Falklands forcibly a year and half later. That lesson has been learned to the extent that subsequent Whitehall efforts to encourage Buenos Aires to make life easier for the islanders have not conceded the substantive point of the islanders’ inviolable right to self-determination.

Meanwhile, successive British governments have been deaf to finding compromise with Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelego. For this part of the British Indian Ocean Territory there remains a steely desire to retain the British airbase (leased to the United States) on Diego Garcia and, in doing so, to refuse the right to return for the islanders who were displaced by the base’s construction in the 1960s. This is despite a 2019 advisory judgment by the International Court of Justice and a subsequent resolution passed in the UN’s General Assembly that “the Chagos Archipelago forms an integral part of the territory of Mauritius.”

Elsewhere, policy has been more fluid. While wishing to retain the Royal Naval base, the Blair government in 2002 devised a plan to share Gibraltar’s sovereignty with Spain. As the minister responsible, Peter Hain, later recalled, Tony Blair “was contemptuous of Gibraltarian attitudes and insistent upon making a deal which could move the whole situation forward.” As Hain recalls Blair telling him, “it is really important to get a better future for Gibraltar, to secure a better relationship with Spain and to remove it as an obstacle to our relations within Europe.” The initiative faltered when Spain decided the proposed deal still did not go far enough and the Gibraltarians responded with a referendum that recorded 98 percent support for remaining uncomplicatedly British.

Little noticed in the British media, a new chapter is now unfolding for the UK’s other territory in the Mediterranean – the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus. In June, the British and Cypriot governments agreed “the next important stage” of a bilateral understanding initially agreed between David Cameron and Cyprus’s president, Nicos Anastasiades, in 2014, to facilitate Cypriot commercial and domestic development within the two British base areas.

The rule change permits Cypriot nationals who own land within those parts of the SBAs that are not actively part of the British military bases or wildlife reserves to develop and sell their properties. Cypriots will finally be free to realise the full potential of their assets, undoing part of the terms of the 1960 treaty establishing the SBAs whereby local owners could only use their land within the territories for farming – not for construction or other commercial use.

What difference will this make? It is a potential windfall for Cypriot landowners who have been unable to realise their holdings’ full potential over the last sixty years. Pantelis Georgiou, the mayor of Ypsonas (a village partly within the Akrotiri base) acclaimed the decision, suggesting that “the agreement will bring about significant development of the areas inside the Sovereign Bases.” There is now no in principle prohibition or restriction on building not just homes and shops but large-scale factories or even theme parks. There are already about 12,000 Cypriot nationals living within the SBAs (considerably more than the British services personnel stationed there) and it is a reasonable projection from this planning relaxation to envisage the economy and community of the SBAs becoming significantly less dependent upon the British military presence.

It is a relaxation that has not pleased everyone. The Dhekelia base borders the Turkish zone and some Turkish Cypriots also own land within the territory. The 1960 treaty was agreed between the UK, and the government of Turkey as well as the newly independent Republic of Cyprus. But Turkish acquiescence to this bilateral initiative was not sought, hence claims that the agreement breaches the 1960 deal that established the sovereign bases.

The terms of that treaty were very clear that the Cyprus SBAs were for Britain to use as military bases. Only developments that directly related to serving the needs of the military bases and the personnel and support staff who lived on them were permitted. Britain was not to develop these toeholds for other purposes. This stipulation was explicit that Britain was not to turn Akritiri and Dhekelia into colonies settled by British people and businesses. They were not to become a Little Britain. Except in limited military-specific respects, the law of Cyprus ran within the SBAs. Although they were not part of the EU (an exemption that at least reduces one negotiating complication) they were the only British possession to adopt the Euro.

By the same token that the British were not to develop Akrotiri and Dhekelia into a residential and commercial outpost of empire, the 1960 treaty also limited the ability of Cypriot nationals to develop their interest there. The bilateral agreement now being enforced unbalances that equivalence, since Cypriots can henceforth deploy the concrete-mixers for development in the SBAs whilst Britons cannot.

Those vigilant in identifying the white flag fluttering wherever British diplomacy ventures may fear this is another example of the Foreign Office’s ability to better perceive the point of view of foreigners than the national interest. A historic precedent for the Cyprus SBAs was the terms of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty through which the Royal Navy retained the Irish “Treaty ports” of Berehaven, Queenstown (Cóbh) and Lough Swilly despite their being on the Irish Free State side of the new border. These were strategically significant bases from which the Royal Navy operated in the Atlantic whilst reducing the exposure to U-boat attack. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain decided to surrender them as a gesture aimed at improving relations with Eamon de Valera. By such miscalculations were major assets squandered for what proved to be a non-existent gain in good will.

It cannot be readily imagined that a British prime minister in the foreseeable future will repeat Chamberlain’s Irish port folly by unilaterally surrendering the Cyprus bases. They combine important airbases in the eastern Mediterranean with forward signals intelligence posts to eavesdrop on the Middle East. The possibility of a Corbyn government prioritising winning the trust of Hamas has receded and nor do future good relations with the EU hinge on the bases. This is partly because Cyprus is not run by Nicosia’s equivalent of de Valera, let alone Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri. But it is also because no Nato member wants this asset lost (Cyprus is not a Nato member, and given Turkey’s attitude is unlikely to become one).

But there is potential for confusion created by this bilateral initiative. It regards not the fact of Britain’s sovereignty but the nature of it. The Cypriot position is that British sovereignty is limited to the direct and indirect military operations of the bases and is, therefore, not unlimited sovereignty in the sense that is exercised if the land was a full and integral part of a nation’s territory.

we are seeking to retain an asset with the argument that we need it in order not to use it.

This is particularly pertinent to the surrounding territorial waters. The 1960 Treaty (Section 3, Annexe A) sets out the limits of the territorial waters extending out from the SBAs and states that the Republic of Cyprus has no claim on them. Britain has exercised its rights to these waters out to three nautical miles whilst retaining (but not exercising) the right to the twelve miles set out by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. That Convention affirms that states have full sovereign rights over their territorial seas.

Cyprus’s response was articulated in 1990 by its then Foreign Minister, George Iacovou, who maintained that what floats on the waves is not to be confused with what lies beneath on the seabed. The UK’s rights to the SBAs did not give it the same rights as normal sovereign states and that meant that the exploration rights to the resources under the SBA’s territorial waters therefore belong to Cyprus.

The British government’s position remains that it does own the seabed of this part of the continental shelf but that it has no intention of commercially exploiting it. So we are seeking to retain an asset with the argument that we need it in order not to use it.

It would certainly be an oddity if territorial waters did not include the seabed. An oddity, though, is precisely what the SBAs are and the more Whitehall green-lights their development on land as Cypriot domestic and commercial resorts the stronger the argument can be mounted that Britain’s writ does not stretch beyond the airbases’ perimeter fencing.

It is far from inherently misguided to permit Cypriots who own land within the SBAs to realise their full commercial potential and seeking good relations with the Republic of Cyprus is a laudable objective with mutually beneficial potential. But Nicosia does perceive the economic value of oil and gas exploration beneath the SBA’s territorial waters which it regards as rightfully Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Its parliament recently passed an amending law on the continental shelf allowing Nicosia to designate security zones around installations of 500 meter radius in its EEZ. This seek to secure installations and marine traffic regulations alike. Cyprus wants to extract the seabed’s resources even if the UK simultaneously claims it is not Cyprus’s EEZ to do so but that Britain would not dream of exercising its extractive rights there. On this one, are we sure that Whitehall is still thinking several moves ahead?

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