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2002-10-09 23:40:56

Profile: Confident EU negotiator
By Kerin Hope
Published: October 9 2002
From his top-floor office at Kema, the market research and business consultancy he founded almost 40 years ago, George Vassiliou looks across Nicosia to the minarets and tiled roofs on the Turkish side of the world's only divided capital.

Unlike many of his colleagues in government, Mr Vassiliou, Cyprus's EU negotiator, is optimistic about the chances of reaching a peace settlement with the Turkish Cypriots ahead of the Copenhagen summit in December, when leaders of the EU are expected to approve the accession of 10 new member states, including Cyprus.

"It's a mistake to rule out the possibility of a settlement - not because Mr Denktash wants a solution, but because Turkey wants to join the Union," he says.

"I think the European Union will be the catalyst for a settlement," he adds. "Two factors have changed. First, Turkey is motivated for the first time to find a solution for Cyprus because it wants to join. Second, the mood among people in the north is different, and you cannot underestimate the importance of popular pressure."

If a deal cannot be brokered by the time of the December summit, Mr Vassiliou says he is confident Cyprus's accession will still be approved.

"It's not fair that Turkey should have a veto on Cyprus's membership," he says. "Cyprus as a whole will join the Union and there will be no change in our efforts to find a solution, even if the acquis communautaire is applied only in the areas under the Cyprus government's control."

Bringing Cyprus into the EU has been a priority for Mr Vassiliou for more than a decade. As the island's president in the early 1990s, he decided to file Cyprus's application for membership after holding unsuccessful peace talks with Rauf Denktash, the Turkish-Cypriot leader.

Mr Vassiliou used the skills acquired in his international consultancy business on lobbying tours of European capitals and in Washington, aimed at reviving the international community's interest in re-uniting Cyprus as a future member of what was then the European Community.

"The degree of suspicion that existed between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides at various levels was so big, it was clear we needed a third party, a kind of international arbiter," he says. "If we were in the EU, with Brussels responsible for much of the decision-making, that would create confidence between the two sides, because the Commission is by definition impartial."

Because of his left-wing background, Mr Vassiliou had the support of Akel, the Cyprus communist party, when he entered politics. He grew up in Hungary where his parents, both doctors, had fled as refugees after the defeat of the communists in Greece's civil war. But he failed to win a second term as president, losing to Glafcos Clerides in 1992 by a few hundred votes.

However, Mr Clerides chose his former rival as Cyprus's EU negotiator because of the experience he had gained from holding inter-communal talks with Mr Denktash, and the wide range of European contacts he had built up as president.

After the accession talks started, Mr Vassiliou still had to work hard at convincing sceptical EU member-states that the Cyprus government was committed to finding a settlement, while at the same time overseeing technical aspects of the negotiations.

"We had to build up support and convince people that if there wasn't a solution by the time the enlargement decision was taken, it wasn't due to lack of effort on our part," he says. "We had to be the best pupils in the class."

Mr Vassiliou is admired by Greek Cypriots for his business achievements and his ability to perform on the international stage. But he is also criticised for appearing "too European". Asked why he lost the 1992 presidential election, he says: "I'm not a paternalist politician."

In spite of coming from a family with impeccable leftwing credentials, Mr Vassiliou is not quite part of the Cyprus political establishment. He left Hungary after the 1956 uprising for the UK, where he studied at the London School of Economics and worked as an economist for Reed International.

Mr Vassiliou has remained at the helm of Kema throughout his time as EU negotiator, though his two daughters handle day-to-day running of the bu siness. He says he is undecided about staying in politics after Cyprus's accession, although, in the event of a settlement, he would be an obvious candidate for the post of president of the new federation of Cyprus. Otherwise, an academic post may beckon.

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