On Thursday, May 9, the Brookings Institution featured Ioannis Kasoulides as guest speaker. His presentation, “Geopolitics in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Cypriot Perspective,” highlighted the region’s strategic geographical position and dwelled on the issues the country faces. Mr. Kasoulides is the minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Cyprus – a position he assumed for a second term on March 1. Martin Indyk, vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, introduced the featured speaker.
The Republic of Cyprus, the largest island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, serves as a crossing point between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. (For a general overview of the country, visit https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cy.html.) Its geographical position places the country amid the Middle East conflict and Israeli security issues.
It is the only member of the European Union in the region (having gained entry in 2004). Its relationship with the U.S. and EU has increased in recent years, in efforts to fight terrorism, human trafficking, and nuclear proliferation. Mr. Kasoulides emphasized his country’s shared values – democracy, rule of law, and human rights – with the U.S. He also noted a deep desire to be viewed as a trading partner of the U.S.
He proceeded to discuss the Arab Spring and its implications on Cyprus. Mr. Kasoulides appeared satisfied of the region’s desire to “democratically evolve” and consolidate democracy. He, however, did not abstain from expressing his views on the ongoing conflict in Syria. His concern with the innocent civilians who are indiscriminately killed was apparent. The use of chemical weapons has raised concerns in the diplomatic community, to which Mr. Kasoulides said, “It is not permissible for government to use chemical weapons against their own people.”
In regard to its neighboring countries, he said Cyprus is the “most predictable next door neighbor of Israel.” Upon its admittance to the EU, it brought “Europe to 35 minutes away from Tel Aviv, whereas before the distance was much bigger.” Both countries have good intentions towards one another, and he said that the energy issue was a “tangible area” that called for the cooperation from both countries. Cyprus has an adjacent border with the economic zone of Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel, whereas Israel has one common line of economic zone with Egypt; the “common denominator” in this paradigm is Cyprus. Mr. Kasoulides stated his country has a “great affinity” toward Lebanon. The Minister of Foreign Affairs shared with the audience that an upcoming visit is in session to Egypt, with whom Cyprus has a “cordial relationship.”
“Turkey acknowledges that the problem of Cyprus is an impediment to the growth of the EU,” Mr. Kasoulides said with respect to Turkey. It does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, due to historical conflicts that are still present today. He went on to say, “What an anachronism it is nowadays to occupy 37% of the territory of Cyprus, 57% of the coastline, a European country, therefore European soil.” If there is any hope of improving the relationship between theses two countries, Turkey needs to partake in negotiation talks. Despite Cyprus’ status as a member of the EU, it is the only member state that has no connection or participates in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The country may be “ready to apply,” but its admission depends on Turkey’s willingness to allow Cyprus at the negotiation tables. The urgency of the matter was stressed by using the energy issue: since the country is strategically situated near the entrance of the Suez Canal, it can export gas to markets around the region (especially Asia, a region that is still developing). He assured the audience that the country “will exploit [their] gas resources.” Furthermore, he said, “I don’t think humanity is permitted to wait until Cyprus settles its problems with Turkey in order to proceed exploiting this very important material.”
Negotiations for Cyprus are not easy, “they never have been,” opined Mr. Kasoulides. The election of Nicos Anastasiades on February 24 created “a window of opportunity.” He expressed optimism that the current center-right government will be able to improve its relations with Turkey.
A Q & A session followed Mr. Kasoulide’s presentation, during which he addressed the country’s economic crisis. He said that a very high deposit interest rate (“the highest in Europe,” he added) incentivized both foreigners and Cypriots to store their money in banks, which decreased investment and spending in the real economy. The banking system eventually collapsed overnight, and the euro zone had to issue a bail out. The crisis may have not allowed Cypriots to undo the events that led to the collapse, but he urged that the case be seen as an experiment of “what to do about banks too big to fail.” (To read more about the bailout, visit http://www.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2013/03/cyprus-bail-out.)
As it was Europe Day, I found it fitting to attend an event that focused on a member state’s geopolitics and issues. A country’s geographic position can be advantageous in several ways, but it can also prove to have several disadvantages (case in point, Cyprus).