Lemesos Letter 3
A small digression – but stay with me, please. An acquaintance of mine, a very senior civil servant in the Home Office told me a few months ago that the Posh Tory Boy Government inflicted on the UK, with the collusion of the LibDems (soon to be extinct as a major political force), have constantly to be held in check by their bureaucracy over a simple, but telling, ‘error’. She says they firmly believe that, as the government, they can do whatever they like. Told – equally frequently – ‘but minister, that’s against the law’, their reply has been, ‘but, we’re the government.’ Hmm.
In the past week Teresa May has been at this very point again, this time in public. Faced – as she sees it – with a possible massive influx of Greek’s fleeing their wrecked economy, she is proposing emergency legislation to stop them arriving in the UK. It would, of course, be completely illegal, but why let the matter of the EU treaties the UK has signed get in the way of pleasing Daily Mail readers.
What’s my point? Cyprus is my point, because if the Greek economy is shredded – and leaving the Euro for all its faults, would do precisely that – the Cyprus economy will go down with the Greek ship, a sorry state of affairs brought about by the insane exposure to the Greek economy Cyprus has. After June 17, and the Greek elections, this island may well tremble, and not from the frequent minor earthquakes. And if that happens a very large number of Cypriots, Greek, ex-pat Brits, and Eastern Europeans living here, might all decide the UK is a safer haven.
Not only is Cyprus in the EU, it is in the Commonwealth. Plus, for historic reasons, there are a huge number of Cypriots already living in the UK, and who count it as home, but who have a lot of relatives here. I keep meeting them and, let me tell you, it is a big surprise. How will Teresa deal with that? Or you?
How big a problem is it? It may be just a straw in the wind but a few weeks ago children in schools across Cyprus were asked to take a letter home to their parents. The letter asked if they – the parents – would like to make a voluntary donation to the Greek government (I promise you this is true), to help them out with their woes, and as a gesture of solidarity with their Greek brethren.
That’s the problem: the degree to which too many Greek Cypriots associate their entire lives with Greece. It is not even the elephant in the room; it is much more overt than that. When I first came here I was puzzled by the number of Greek flags everywhere, so much so that it took a while to recognise the Cyprus flag (basically it is a map of the island, sweet but weak). Enosis – union with Greece – still exists in peoples’ minds. Now, they are about to reap the whirlwind of consequences.
In four weeks time one of the major banks here has to find €1.8bn to satisfy new EU rules on banking. But it is not alone. Overall, the Cypriot financial system has an exposure to Greece estimated at €23bn, compared with the size of the total Cypriot economy of around €17.3bn. And last year the country, whose credit rating by two of the three ratings agencies is listed as ‘junk’, had to borrow €2.5bn from Russia, that altruistic nation of 140m souls to the north, always happy to oblige strategically placed small nations toward making a better future.
So, finally, in the past few days we have this comment by the Cypriot president, Demetris Christofias: ‘I don’t take it as a given that we will negotiate entry to a support mechanism, (but) I don’t want to absolutely exclude it’ He’s talking about an EU central bank bailout of course, and although Cyprus’ problems in this regard are tiny, compared to, say Spain, they are highly significant with regard to Greece up the road.
The coming super crisis – if the Greeks vote for their immolation, as it appears they will do – can be linked to all kinds of events in Cyprus’ past. The agreement by the Ottoman Empire with the British, such that the latter administered the island for the Turks (in essence, then until – in effect – forced into giving independence in 1961). In the insurgency that preceded this, overwhelmingly Greek led, the British, in a neat divide and rule touch, recruited their urgently needed extra police forces entirely from the Turkish minority.
From the very start Cyprus was a divided nation. Civil war broke out here in 1964; the UN have been here ever since. When the Greek dictators took over in Athens in 1968, it was only a matter of time before the hot-head enosis supporters on the island saw a way to join their brother fascists, and forcibly take Cyprus under Greek rule. They made their bid in 1974; it failed because the Turks invaded – justifiably under the treaty guarantees signed by them, Greece and the UK. Their invasion caused the Junta in Athens to fall, so the Turkish army helped restore democracy in Greece, not something many Greeks – or Greek Cypriots – would ever admit to.
The Turks threw away whatever moral advantage they in theory started with, by the usual atrocities, but atrocities were common on either side. There was a rapid influx of Greeks fleeing south, while Turkish Cypriots fled north. The Turkish army eventually held –as it still does – nearly 40 per cent of the island, with the best beaches and the most beautiful and rugged north-eastern corner. But their part of the island has long been ruined by their forty years of occupation; many Turkish Cypriots left long ago (many coming to the UK). A conscript and resentful army of 30,000 remains, about as big as the entire fighting part of the British Army.
A few years ago a referendum, held in both parts of the island, asked about reunification. It is no surprise to discover that while the Turkish part voted overwhelmingly ‘yes’, the Greek south voted equally overwhelmingly, ‘no’. Hubris, that much loved weapon of the Greek Gods, may be about to descend on the Greek part of the island. Meanwhile, while Cyprus sweats in the now sweltering sun, the cold reality of life lived in a bubble, may be about to burst. No one here is predicting exactly what that will mean.