High Commissioner: No return to ‘touchdown’ flights to UK
By ELTAN HALİL
THERE will be no return to the practice of passengers travelling from North Cyprus to the UK being allowed to wait on the plane during “touchdown” in Türkiye, even once the new Ercan airport opens, the British High Commissioner in Cyprus, Irfan Siddiq, has said.
While the UK does not allow planes to fly directly from the TRNC, in the past flights could land in Türkiye before continuing on to Britain, with passengers allowed to wait on board.
That long-running practice was brought to an end in June 2017, with passengers forced to disembark so that they and their luggage could go through a second round of security checks in Türkiye.
With the new state-of-the-art Ercan airport terminal expected to open on July 20, hopes had been raised that any concerns British officials may have over airport security in the TRNC would be allayed, paving the way for a possible return to the touchdown flights.
However Mr Siddiq has dashed any such hopes. Speaking exclusively to Cyprus Today during a wide-ranging interview at a hotel in Çatalköy on Tuesday, ahead of a public meeting there with British residents in the TRNC, Mr Siddiq said the lack of direct flights between the UK and North Cyprus is one of the biggest issues raised to him by British people who travel regularly to the TRNC.
“That’s obviously a long-standing issue and one that we would like to see progress on, but of course, it’s linked to progress on a [Cyprus] settlement,” he said.
Asked if the UK could allow direct flights to take place without a solution in Cyprus, he replied that this is “not something the UK can undertake ourselves”.
Citing the “Chicago Convention” on international aviation rules, Mr Siddiq continued by saying that the direct flights issue is “not something that is absolutely contingent on a comprehensive settlement”.
“But it is contingent upon there being an agreement for there to be direct flights with the Republic of Cyprus because, as the Republic of Cyprus is the only internationally recognised state in accordance with the Chicago Convention, it controls all the airspace and designation of airports and therefore it would need agreement.”
Mr Siddiq said an example of how direct flights could be allowed without a comprehensive solution in Cyprus could be through a “confidence-building measure”, giving the example of a deal suggested by former Greek Cypriot Nicos Anastasiades involving direct flights to and from Ercan and the opening up of Gazimağusa port to international trade, in exchange for “the return of Varosha [Maraş]”.
The offer “wasn’t accepted on this side so it never went anywhere,” Mr Siddiq stated, “but that gives you an example of how, absent a permanent settlement, we could find a solution that might facilitate direct flights”.
PASSENGERS WAITING ON PLANE AN ‘OVERSIGHT’
Asked about the possibility of passengers from the TRNC once again being allowed to wait on the plane in Türkiye after the new Ercan airport opens, Mr Siddiq said the decision to put a stop to the practice in 2017 “wasn’t actually related to issues at Ercan airport”. The decision, he said, was related to “two things”.
“One is that any flight that comes to the UK from Turkey, and even if it stops in Turkey, because we don’t recognise flights that come directly from Ercan they are deemed to be coming from Turkey, needs advanced security checks,” he explained.
“That’s something that’s in place between the UK and Turkey. So firstly, you need that to change, which there’s no current prospect of.
“If that changed, then there’d be an issue of whether you could do a security assessment for Ercan, but again, that would depend upon consent from the Republic of Cyprus as the body that has the international responsibility under the Chicago Convention.
“So unfortunately, I don’t see that changing. Just to be clear, the reason why that [touchdown flights] changed in 2017, [and] it’s difficult for me to understand this, but it was an oversight, it shouldn’t have been happening. . . [passengers] should always have been stopped and checked.
“For some reason it wasn’t happening and when they realised that that wasn’t happening, they instated what has always been the correct security protocols.”
Mr Siddiq added that “any flights coming from Turkey to the UK have specific security checks that are required” and that “unfortunately, there aren’t easy solutions”.
The High Commissioner’s comments that travellers from the TRNC to the UK should never have been allowed to wait on the plane in Türkiye appeared to differ from previous explanations given by British government officials for the disembarkation decision in 2017.
In October 2017, the then-British High Commissioner Matthew Kidd said during a meeting with British residents in the TRNC: “It’s really about how Ercan run their operation overall . . . There are particular ways in which security arrangements are designed at any given airport.
“It’s not about security at one point or who looks after baggage at which point. It’s the whole combination of individual elements which add up to a security blanket which is good enough or not.”
During the same month a group of high-profile Turkish Cypriots from North Cyprus and the TRNC had a meeting with the then-UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, where they expressed to Mr Grayling their readiness to do “whatever it takes” to make security at Ercan airport “that of European and international standards and for an internationally accredited company to run security at the airport that addresses the concerns”.
In April 2019 this newspaper reported how the British government had reviewed security policy over Ercan airport and concluded that a change of approach “was not possible”.
A response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Mediterranean Department to a letter from the Beşparmak think-tank to then-Prime Minister Theresa May, delivered to 10 Downing Street, which called for a rethink of its disembarkation policy, said: “While we acknowledge the inconvenience this may cause, we consider the increase in journey time a proportionate measure to protect the public against a genuine terrorist threat.”
In May 2021 Lord Sharkey raised the issue during a debate in Parliament, saying: “I know from conversations with President [Ersin] Tatar that his administration would comply with any conditions the [British] government might have.
“We imposed that restriction, and we could lift it ourselves without reference to anyone.”
During his interview with Cyprus Today, Mr Siddiq also answered questions about the Cyprus problem and the current prospects for a settlement on the island.
Asked if he thinks the system of “guarantees” in Cyprus is outdated, Mr Siddiq replied: “Any change to the system of guarantees and any change to any of the security and guarantees arrangements that exist as a result of the 1960 Constitution will have to be agreed by both sides and will have to be framed in a way that they give both sides a sense of security.
“The UK has made clear for a long time that it is open to any arrangement that both sides find satisfactory. We’re not wedded to a particular approach and we’re not insisting on keeping a particular approach.
“But of course, it has to be agreed by both sides . . . we’re not a determinant here, we’re not going to block something that both sides agree to. So whatever both sides agree to in terms of the guarantee future, we will, I’m sure, on the basis of our previous statements and policy be happy to agree to.”
It would be “fine with the UK” if the two sides of Cyprus agreed to abolish the Treaty of Guarantee – something the Greek Cypriot side has long called for but which the Turkish Cypriot side is against – Mr Siddiq added.
On Britain’s Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs), which were established in 1960 as part of the agreements to grant Cyprus independence from the UK, Mr Siddiq said any change to the Treaty of Guarantee would not affect the status of the SBAs, which are covered by the Treaty of Establishment.
“The Treaty of Establishment governs the functioning of the bases. . . Changing the status of the guarantees and guarantor powers does not necessarily impact upon the situation of the bases.”
Asked for his views on President Ersin Tatar’s demand for sovereign equality, Mr Siddiq said: “I’ve had lots of discussions with Mr Tatar about this. It’s clear under the 1960 Constitution that both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots are recognised as key constituents of the state, citizens of the state.
“So there’s no question that, theoretically, Turkish Cypriots don’t have the right to sovereign citizenship of the Republic of Cyprus, which initially they were obviously part of.
“The step to declare a self-declared separate TRNC is not recognised by anybody apart from Turkey and therefore that claimed sovereignty is not recognised in the sense of it constituting the same entity, the self-declared TRNC.
“So as defined as a self-declared TRNC, sovereignty is not recognised because it’s not a recognised state of anyone but Turkey.
“But that doesn’t mean that in a settlement, which is obviously what we all aspire to, where Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots are fellow citizens, they will not share in that sovereignty. “So there’s no denial of their inherent right to sovereignty, but . . . as is articulated and expressed through a self-declared TRNC, it’s not accepted or recognised by anybody.
“And I know that’s a difficult message to swallow, but it’s the reality of the TRNC not being recognised by anybody apart from Turkey.”
Mr Siddiq continued by saying that Mr Tatar and his advisers tell him they “don’t have confidence in the Greek Cypriot leadership’s commitment to finding a settlement” and “on the basis of that there should be a different approach, which is what Turkey also says”.
“So they challenge the premise that you can satisfy the inherent right to sovereignty through a unified state because you don’t think you can get an agreement, that’s what they say anyway.
“My view, the view of my government, the view of the whole international community apart from Turkey, is that there’s still a viable prospect for a settlement that will create a unified federal state under which Turkish Cypriots will be able to exercise their inherent right to sovereignty.”
Referring to the failure of the last major push to unite Cyprus under a federal umbrella, at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana six years ago, Mr Siddiq said this triggered a change in Turkey’s position towards the Cyprus issue.
“Up until then it was supporting a federal solution,” he said. “And then it started advocating a two-state solution. [This] then led to the election of a leader on the Turkish Cypriot side, Mr Tatar, who was also an advocate for a two-state solution. So you have an alternative model being espoused.”
‘ONE FINAL PUSH’
Given the growing disparity between the positions of the two sides of Cyprus, Mr Siddiq was asked why he feels that a federal solution is still viable.
“The disparity in the two models now and the steps being taken by Turkish Cypriot authorities and Turkey to consolidate that separation of the two models is having an impact,” he said.
“And it is making, I think, from what I’ve heard speaking to Greek Cypriots, particularly the leadership, Greek Cypriots realise that the continuation of the current trajectory is not . . . comfortable for them, because it will only lead to more and more cementing of the division between the two sides.
“And it will make the prospects for a settlement less and less likely on the basis of a federal solution. So I think they realise that unless they do something soon to resurrect and revive prospects for a federal solution, it will probably become impossible.
“And this is something that the Greek Cypriot leadership have clearly articulated. So I think they recognise that there is a new imperative, a new momentum for them and pressure on them to reach an agreement.
“And this is what the recently elected president of the Republic of Cyprus, the Greek Cypriot leader [Nikos Christodoulides], has said very clearly.
“So I think that creates an opportunity, that along with new leadership in Turkey and Greece, and a period of at least for a few years where there’s no electoral disruption or instability expected, means that I think there is now an opportunity to make potentially one final push for a settlement on the basis of a bicommunal bizonal federation.
“At the moment the Turkish Cypriot leadership isn’t convinced that that’s credible and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to try to work to try to make it credible.”
Asked why the UK still supports a federal solution to the Cyprus problem, Mr Siddiq responded by saying: “For a country as small as Cyprus, a unified state will just be much more effective in terms of how it will operate.
“The signal it sends, of course, around . . . our ability to resolve problems rather than cement them. . . as a diplomat that’s something I’d like to see.
“And, you know, it’s clear that the EU expected when the Republic of Cyprus entered [the EU], at some point there to be unification so that the North could also enter the EU and I think if that prospect of a unified federal state died, the prospect of the North entering the EU would also die. So there are good reasons to hold on to trying to make one final push to a federal solution.”
Asked if the European Union should become more involved in the Cyprus negotiations process, Mr Siddiq said: “So the Greek Cypriot leader, the President of the Republic of Cyprus, has called for this.
“The EU has historically been quite involved because of the nature of EU membership . . . So the reality is that the EU has recently had a role, not a lead political actor because that’s the UN’s role, but because any agreement for a federal solution would mean that the North would then accede to the EU.
“There are a lot of practical technical economic alignments that need to happen, harmonisation, so that the North is ready for EU membership, just like other countries that . . . have to go through a process of preparation, that will be needed and the EU will be central to that. So I think it’s natural that the EU has a strong role.
“I think the Republic of Cyprus president Mr Christodoulides’s aim was particularly around EU incentives for Turkey, in its relationship with the EU.
“I think those could also be positive but they are all I think supportive and contributory to the bigger issue, which is obviously the agreement between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. So the EU can have a supportive role but it’s not a lead role.”
GİRNE MEMORIAL TO BRITISH SERVICEMEN
Mr Siddiq also explained why he, and his predecessors, do not attend the Remembrance service at the memorial erected in Girne for British servicemen killed by Greek Cypriot Eoka terrorists during the “Cyprus Emergency” of the 1950s.
“We host our Remembrance service at the Commonwealth War Graves site in the buffer zone, which is where the servicemen who were killed are actually buried,” the diplomat stated.
“I know that there’s a memorial to them in the North, but they’re actually buried there, so we traditionally go there.
“My intention on the next Remembrance service is to go to the place where the British servicemen are laid to rest and make the commemoration there.”
Asked if he is troubled by the fact that Greek Cypriot leaders continue to pay homage to Eoka terrorists, but are then invited to attend receptions at the British High Commission in South Nicosia, such as one held recently for the birthday of King Charles, Mr Siddiq responded by saying that the “history of the British presence in Cyprus is complicated” and the “history of the respective narratives around what that period signified is also complicated and contested”.
“So just as I imagine Turkish Cypriots have very strong reactions to the Eoka campaign, as the British do as well, I think we understand that Greek Cypriots have a very strong reaction in a different way,” he added.
“And I think it’s really important to respect people’s differences and their different perspectives, which I do.
“So, just as I’m sure there’s a very different approach on the Turkish Cypriot side, which I respect, I understand there is a different approach on the Greek Cypriot side, which I respect, even if I don’t agree with it.”
This story first appeared in the print edition of Cyprus Today dated July 1, 2023.