Stories never told: The Cyprus referendum

A reader asks me to post more 'stories never told', that is events I believe were perceived and analysed in a particularly skewed or outright erroneous way at the time.

In my view, predominant amongst those is the Cyprus reunification referendum in 2004. Here's the historical background from Wikipedia:

The Cyprus dispute is the conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and also Republic of Cyprus and Turkey over Cyprus, an island nation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Since 1974 the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus has been divided. The dividing line which cuts across the country has created a physical and social barrier between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot Communities. The Turkish Cypriot community declared itself Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, condemned by UN Security Council Resolutions as legally invalid. It is recognised only by Turkey.

In 2004, the Greek and Turkish communities held a dual referendum on the so-called 'Annan Plan' (BBC coverage here). The plan was put together over a long period of extensive consulation and opinion-gauging and set the terms for the reunification of Cyprus. In the end, the Turkish-Cypriot side voted overwhelmingly in favour, while the Greek-Cypriots rejected it. The plan was never implemented and Cyprus entered the EU a divided nation. The reaction was the same everywhere:

European Commission: The European Commission deeply regrets that the Greek Cypriot community did not approve the comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem, but it respects the democratic decision of the people.

US State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher: We are disappointed that a majority of Greek Cypriots voted against the settlement plan. Failure of the referendum in the Greek Cypriot community is a setback to the hopes of those on the island who voted for the settlement and to the international community.

European Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen: I feel cheated by the Greek Cypriot government... There is a shadow now over the accession of Cyprus. What we will seriously consider now is finding a way to end the economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriots.

So what's wrong with these accounts? Quite simply, it is nonsensical to claim one party in a dispute is responsible for the failure to reach a compromise - if the terms were sweeter for that party, a deal would have been struck, or it would have been the other side withdrawing its support. To my knowledge, no-one publicly commenting on the referendum ever grasped this simple and obvious point.

Of course, the Cyprus referendum is by no means the only example where one party is blamed for refusing to accept a deal. Phrases such as 'country X responsible for stalemate in talks' find their way into newspapers and public discourse all the time, despite the fact such analysis reveals little other than the author's moral stance on the issue.

When an arbiter puts a plan on the table that ends up being enthusiastically supported by one side and rejected by the other, the fault very probably lies with the plan itself; the first reaction should be to question the arbiter's competence or motives. This is especially true when said arbiter has very good information as to the voting intentions of the parties at each side of the dispute: in the case of Cyprus, it was abundantly clear early on that the final terms offered were acceptable to one community and not the other.

Without going into the details of the final plan, I believe that a deal acceptable to both parties could have been put to the vote instead. It's an absolute shame this didn't happen, and completely wrongheaded to blame the Greek-Cypriot side for this failure. The culprit was an incompetent UN, unable to realise that an arbiter should have no preconceived ideas, no preferences of their own and no interest in the opinions of parties that don't get to vote. The arbiter's role is confined to making sure the damn deal goes forward.


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