Forty-four years ago Turkish paratroopers landed in Cyprus. Soon afterwards a second Turkish invasion with armored units took place and Cyprus was cut in two. The French have a saying that nothing lasts longer than the provisional. It seemed obvious in 1974 that with the military dictatorship overthrown in Athens, and a reasonable non-military government in Ankara it should be possible to find a solution and restore the integrity of the whole island of Cyprus as a United Nations member-state.
Half a century later we are still waiting. In London, one of the guarantor powers in Cyprus, the British government, was paralyzed. Labour’s Harold Wilson was in power but without a majority. He had to wait until a second general election in October 1974 to secure a tiny majority of just four members of Parliament.
The foreign secretary, James Callaghan, was a Euroskeptic with little knowledge or history of European politics. British politics at the time was inward-looking, provincial, facing economic difficulties caused by stupid trade unions going endlessly on strike as the 1968 generation of leftists launched years of social and cultural agitation.
A more settled, confident London could have moved its soldiers and armored vehicles out of the sovereign bases that Britain maintained on Cyprus to host eavesdropping spy technology in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1990, US President George H. Bush sent 1,000 American soldiers to patrol the borders of the then Yugoslav republic called Macedonia.
It was a diplomatic masterstroke. As a result of this small number of US soldiers, Slobodan Milosevic never dared interfere in the republic in the way Serb military and warlords did in in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo with such murderous results.
If Wilson had understood Eastern Mediterranean politics in 1974 or if Callaghan had the same courage as Margaret Thatcher when the Argentinian junta invaded the Falklands in 1982, a thin trip-wire of British military could perhaps have stopped the full invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus.
But a UK government did not know what to do and the result is history. Today, another UK government, also without a majority, appears not to know what to do more than two years after the Brexit referendum took place in June 2016. Of the 44.5 million British voters on the electoral register, 17.4 million voted to leave the EU and 27.1 million did not. Of those participating in the vote the split was 52-48 percent. Every recent opinion poll shows that if the referendum were held today there would be a majority to stay in Europe.
But just as you cannot rerun 1974 you cannot rerun 2016. The British prime minister, Theresa May, has chosen to interpret the referendum result as a mandate for the hardest of hard ruptures with the rest of Europe.
Other countries like Norway or Switzerland are not EU member-states but maintain a sensible trade and open border policy with the EU. Turkey is in a customs union with the EU, except for agricultural products, but is far, far away from EU membership, especially under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But May rejects the Norway, Swiss or Turkish compromise with the EU and insists that the EU27 member-states must bow to Britain’s wishes to have full trade and economic access as if Britain was an EU member-state while accepting none of the obligations such as living under common rules, not keeping Ireland as a single open economy as it is today, and other demands put forward by the ultra anti-Europeans in her Conservative Party.
As a result there is a crisis of governability in Britain. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are divided on the EU question. There is no majority in the House of Commons for any kind of agreement. Last week the prime minister had to rely on Labour anti-Europeans to win a slim majority in the House of Commons to reject membership of the customs union.
Businesses in Britain, especially foreign-owned industrial giants like Airbus, Nissan or Jaguar Land Rover, are all warning they will have to leave if the UK loses access to the single market and just-in-time deliveries of components as customs controls are introduced at all UK ports.
Lloyd’s of London, the world’s oldest insurance firm, has announced it will have to relocate a large part of its operations to keep operating in the EU, including insuring Greece’s shipping industry.
The European Commission has sent guidance notes to all member-states saying they must prepare for the worst with Britain crashing out of the EU without any agreement. This could means flights being grounded next April as Britain would leave the European Aviation Safety Agency. London has announced it is stockpiling essential food and medicines as if planning for a war.
As in 1974, faced with Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, the British government was frozen, unable to act. A similar paralysis grips London politics today. No one knows how to cut the Gordian knot of the poisoned mess of UK-EU relations and the dominance of Europe-hating ideology in the Conservative and Labour parties. If Greece has been the EU’s number one problem nation in recent years, now Britain will take over that unenviable role.
* Denis MacShane is the former UK minister for Europe. He has written three books on Brexit.