EU diplomat underlines Cyprus' contribution to EU Middle East policy
by Maria Koniotou
Nicosia, Apr 28 (CNA) -- Cyprus is ''the best placed EU member'' to help Brussels formulate its policy on the Middle East and has the ''best understanding'' about the Middle East issues, Head of the European Commission Representation to Cyprus Adriaan van der Meer said in an interview with CNA to mark the first anniversary of Cyprus' accession to the Union.
He appeared hopeful that the Cyprus House of Representatives would ratify the EU Constitution before May 29, when the French people will decide in a referendum whether to approve or reject it, noting that the new Constitution is very important to make the EU 25 function properly, from a democratic point of view, and in order to make clear who does what.
On the continuing Turkish occupation and division of the island, the EU diplomat said it would be ''very good'' if the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides could come with common proposals to the UN on amendments to the Annan plan, stressing that the EU would lend its support wherever possible and whenever requested towards the effort to find a negotiated settlement under UN auspices.
Van der Meer also noted that Cypriots are at this stage more interested in their individual rights as EU citizens than in EU general policy.
Van der Meer said Cyprus was ''doing well'' in its continuing effort to put into force the acquis communautaire but pointed to some areas of concern, such as maritime safety, asylum policy and the Agricultural Payment Agency.
''These areas have been substantially improved, although we recognise that the government has an enormous burden with regard to asylum policy due to increased applications'' for political asylum, he said.
Van der Meer said that one issue still outstanding for quite some time was the application of the ''Natura 2000'' directive, relating to the EU's natural conservation policy, with regard to the Akamas peninsula, in the island's northwestern part.
He said that transitional periods granted to Cyprus to comply with the acquis in certain areas, including waste packaging, are about to expire and expressed his desire to see further measures in place to comply with EU rules and regulations.
As regards EU awareness in Cyprus, the Head of the Commission Representation said that since the country joined the Union (May 1, 2004) there has been an increase in requests for information from private citizens.
He said that one of the questions asked relates to university fees and funding possibilities as well as enquiries about living and working in Cyprus.
''It is quite clear that Cypriots are very much interested, for the moment, in their individual rights as EU citizens and there is a lot of work to be done to get Cypriots interested in our general policies, for example the Lisbon Strategy towards creating new jobs and innovation, for example the policy in the external field, for example our relations under the new neighbourhood policy which is very important for Cyprus,'' van der Meer noted.
He said it was interesting to see that ''where we touch upon individual rights of consumers there was a big interest and particularly in the anti-smoking issue, the anti-obesity issue, and the issue of the air passengers' rights.''
The EU diplomat noted that the main requests so far came from Greek Cypriots and from other EU citizens living on the island, especially those from the UK. He said British citizens asked many questions about ''the pink slip'' (working and residence permit), health care and health insurance and about customs issues, import of cars and other goods.
He pointed out that ''what is now very important is that we show to the people the benefits of EU accession and in particular that the structural funds, the regional funds, are coming upstream.''
As regards the EU Constitution, van der Meer praised the government for its enormous effort to inform the people of Cyprus on all the various details and noted the Representation's and the European Parliament's contribution to these efforts.
Asked about Cyprus' role in the EU and specifically in the fields of illegal immigration and EU relations with its neighbours towards the East, van der Meer noted that Cypriot members of the European Parliament as well as the government have played a very active role in these issues.
''Cyprus wants to play a bridging role between the EU and the Middle East. Cyprus is the best placed member of the EU to help us formulate this policy because Cyprus is very close to the Middle East and Cyprus has the best understanding about the issues of the Middle East,'' he said.
On the Cyprus question, van der Meer said ''our overall goal is to have as soon as possible a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem,'' noting at the same time the importance of confidence building measures, such as the opening of crossing points, the de-mining process, and dialogue between political parties and NGOs from both communities.
Van der Meer said any solution should be agreed within the UN framework, noting that ''it is also clear to us that now that Cyprus has become a member of the EU that we have to see that compliance with the acquis, or any transitional arrangements on the basis of the acquis, is done on the basis of previous examples and we would like to see an upgraded role of the EU inside that process.''
''It will be very good if both sides could come with common proposals to the UN as regards amendments to the Annan plan. It is clear for us that the basis for any further negotiations should be the Annan plan, in particular Annan 5,'' he said, underlining that ''we will lend all our support wherever possible and whenever requested to solve the Cyprus problem, of course under the aegis, under the leadership of the UN.''
He said that as EU officials who visited Cyprus in the past met with both sides on the island, the government of the Republic of Cyprus and the leadership of the Turkish Cypriot community, this same pattern of contacts will continue in the future.
''In that respect we will continue our even-handed approach as we would like to be informed about the opinions of the various partners here on the island, representatives of the two communities on the island, in order to see what can be done to carry any process forward,'' he said.
He stressed that ''for us the only internationally recognised legal entity is the Republic of Cyprus'' and ''with full respect of that situation and UN resolutions we will pursue our work in the coming period.''
With regard to EU regulations for the Turkish Cypriots, on the Financial Aid of 259 million euros and on direct trade between the Turkish occupied areas of Cyprus and the EU, still pending before the EU Council of Ministers, van der Meer said ''we have had some bilateral contacts and we continue to have bilateral contacts with representatives of the government of the Republic of Cyprus to see how we can move these two draft regulations forward.''
The EU Presidency of Luxembourg is still contemplating what to do on this issue, he noted.
Asked about the nature of the direct trade regulation, van der Meer said this was ''a simple trade proposal providing preferential trade for a selected number of products within a quota system.''
''Within the quota system, we will provide preferential treatment for products originating in the northern part of Cyprus to be exported to the EU market. For example citrus products, textile products and so on,'' he said.
Asked if these products would be exported from ports in the Turkish-occupied northern part of Cyprus, declared illegal ports of entry by the Cyprus government, he said there could be two ways to export them, via Limassol port (in the free areas) or via Famagusta port (in the occupied areas).
He recalled that European Commission President Jose Barosso had indicated in the past that he was willing to have open bilateral dialogue with representatives of the government of Cyprus to further see what could be done with regard to direct trade, including the issue of the port of Famagusta.
The Cyprus government has proposed the joint (Greek and Turkish Cypriot) operation of Famagusta port and the return of the city's fenced area, now under Turkish occupation. Cyprus' northern third is under Turkish occupation since 1974.
Van der Meer added that experts from EU member-states had carried out phytosanitary controls on products such as citrus and potatoes grown by Turkish Cypriot farmers.
He said that as the season for citrus is now over, experts will come to the island again in September to carry pre-harvest checks on the basis of the acquis communautaire in the field of citrus.
As regards potatoes he said ''we have a very intensive monitoring programme adopted by the Commission as regards building up a track record of the quality and in particular the health situation of the potatoes in the north.''
''We have to apply a policy of zero tolerance, we have to be 100% sure that there are no diseases and therefore we will keep on monitoring on a very intensive way the situation of this crop in the northern part of the island,'' he said.
Van der Meer expressed satisfaction with the implementation of the EU Green Line policy, noting however that as regards intra-island trade further efforts need to be made to increase the volume.
He said he wanted to give especially to the young people the message that they are now not only citizens of the Republic of Cyprus but also EU citizens and expressed the wish and hope ''that they make use of all the opportunities that exist now for them to travel, to study, to work even in the EU, but also in particular to participate in our education programmes so that they can meet their young colleagues from the EU, share experiences, see how diverse the EU is, while at the same time we try to unite ourselves in common policies.''