Niyazi Kızılyürek MEP: My campaign “was not federalism in abstract but federalism in practice”

, by Pierre Le Mouel

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Niyazi Kızılyürek MEP: My campaign “was not federalism in abstract but federalism in practice”
A street in the Cypriot capital where Kızılyürek is a university professor. Photo: CC0

On 26 May, the small country of Cyprus made history by electing, for the first time since 1964, a Turkish Cypriot. This event was only possible in the European elections. Niyazi Kızılyürek, who now sits in the European Parliament with the European United Left, is a professor of political history at the University of Cyprus, in the south of the divided island.

After a PhD on the Cyprus dispute at the University of Bremen, his academic career in Cyprus has been prolific with 20 books published. He was elected Dean of the Faculty of Humanities in 2013. Kızılyürek has also worked as an advisor to the government of the Republic of Cyprus, and as a columnist for Cypriot newspapers.

Since 1974, the island of Cyprus has been de facto divided by a buffer zone maintained by UN peacekeepers. The south remains under the control of the Republic of Cyprus, the only recognised state on the island since its independence in 1960 from the United Kingdom. The north is still considered today as occupied by the Turkish army. The latter declared independence in 1983 as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), only recognised by Turkey. In 2004, the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU, but EU legislation is suspended on the northern side. In 2003, the TRNC unilaterally opened a border crossing in the shared capital of Nicosia. There are now nine checkpoints across the border, with the last opened in November 2018.

Turkish Cypriots can be citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and can therefore vote and be elected to the European Parliament. The elections are done in two steps. First, you vote for one of the lists of 6 candidates. Then, you can select two names on that list to give them extra points. With this system, Niyazi Kızılyürek got elected with 25,051 votes, coming second on the list of the leftist AKEL party that got two seats.

Pierre Le Mouel from the JEF webzine interviewed the freshly elected Turkish Cypriot MEP.

Pierre Le Mouel / The New Federalist (TNF): What does the European Union mean to you?

Niyazi Kızılyürek (NK): The European Union is a permanent transition. It is a step beyond nation state, but far away from completion. Right now it has a kind of confederal way of working, with some federal elements, and I think it will need to move to a more federal idea at some point. I’m not very happy about the neo-liberal economic politics in the EU generally. I would like to see more social justice. But overall, the EU is a historic step forward in any case. One of the greatest achievements. Moving a whole continent from religious wars and from national wars to a kind of permanent peace, as Immanuel Kant imagined, is of course a great achievement.

TNF: What nationality and/or citizenship do you consider yourself?

NK: When it comes to citizenship, I don’t have much choice. I’m citizen of the Republic of Cyprus. Of course I’m also an EU citizen. When it comes to nationality, I don’t like to differentiate so much between nationality and citizenship. I believe in a civic formation of identity. Citizenship and national identity don’t always coincide but this is a dilemma created by the logic of the nation-state. If we go beyond nation-states, we’ll have a community of citizens, and not different nationalities and different citizenships. I believe in the concept of constitutional patriotism, and I prefer a political community to a nation or congregation of nationalities.

TNF: Do you think the EU is part of day to day life in Cyprus? In both north and south.

NK: I cannot say it’s equally present in the life of both communities. There is a difference with the northern part of the island because the acquis communautaire [1] is not implemented there. In that technical sense, the northern part is not so close to the EU in everyday life.

There are of course certain efforts, a certain special treatment if you like, towards the Turkish Cypriot community. For example, through the provisions of the Council Regulation 389/2006 of 2006 establishing an instrument of financial support for encouraging the economic development of the Turkish Cypriot community.

The EU is trying to get Turkish Cypriots more connected to the institutions of the EU and to bring them closer to the EU. There is some financial help but it’s far away from saying that the EU is part of everyday life in the northern part. Whereas in the south, of course, things are different. The Republic of Cyprus is a full member state and the government-controlled area in the southern part is directly linked to the EU. Even though the citizens are not so aware of the EU’s role in their lives.

TNF: Do you think the EU can do something about Cyprus and the Cyprus dispute?

NK: Yes, definitely. I believe the EU should do more. First of all I don’t expect the EU to make wonders and solve the Cyprus conflict. It’s an international conflict that is already taken care of by the UN and it should remain like this.

However, the EU has a huge experience in reconciliation practices, in bringing peoples, communities together, and this is exactly what I imagine to do in Cyprus. To introduce this kind of a European model of reconciliation in both communities. On that level we don’t see much of that happening. For example, we don’t see projects for young people, exchanges, school visits or bilingual activities. So regarding the civil society, the EU could have done much better. Of course, I believe that if Cypriots are not demanding or not insisting on that, you cannot do these kind of things by yourself. But I would really like to introduce the whole EU experience and heritage in terms of reconciliation to Cyprus.

Just to give an example, there could be a kind of Arte in Cyprus. [2] Same programs in two different languages. This kind of things can be done, if of course we Cypriots ask for it and work for it. I hope the EU would accompany it. There’s a lot to be done in this field in Cyprus. You can get schools involved, you can do exchange programs, promote bilingualism and so on. At the end of the day, I believe also that those kinds of processes can create a kind of bottom-up pressure towards a settlement, instead of waiting for the elites to negotiate a settlement.

TNF: Why did you decide to run for European Parliament? And how did you choose the party you would run with?

NK: I have been an activist for Cypriot federalism for years. I’ve published a lot on the concept, and on a federal solution for Cyprus. I created bicommunal movements from time to time, I’ve been part of pacifist movements. I live with both communities, but in this sense I’m an exception of course, living with Greek and Turkish Cypriots at the same time. I am by definition engaged in the peace and reconciliation process. I am now engaged as an academic, a public intellectual writer. Politics is not something I planned to do in my life. Now that I’m elected I don’t see a big difference between my new political praxis and my intellectual work. I even see some commonalities.

I was approached by AKEL and I responded positively. I accepted because I believe things can be done more easily if I’m an MEP. I also knew my candidacy in itself would be federalist praxis because it would be the first time Greek and Turkish Cypriots work together on an election campaign. And we did this. And I was elected, for the first time in the history of Cyprus, with votes from both communities.

TNF: How does it work to run a campaign on an island divided by a demilitarised zone?

NK: I did a campaign on the whole island. Which is also unique. We ran a campaign from Kyrenia to Limassol and from Karpas to Paphos. I always tried to take Greek Cypriots with me, other candidates from AKEL, when I went to meet Turkish Cypriots. I had to work in groups with both Greek and Turkish Cypriots who were coordinating the campaign together.

Our campaign was of course bilingual, in Greek and Turkish. So we tried to overcome the obstacles by using two languages, by meeting as many people as possible, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and by having mixed working groups that cooperated throughout the campaign. All these are unique experiences. To my mind, that was federal praxis. That’s what I understood, it was not federalism in abstract but federalism in practice.

TNF: What do you think of the fact that with the different citizenships of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, they can be regarded as different? Election results show the results of Greek and Turkish Cypriot votes separately. What do you think of the separation that still exists today?

NK: There is no different citizenship. Turkish Cypriots are also citizens of the Republic of Cyprus. What was separate were the ballot boxes. I don’t like the idea that there were polling stations specifically for Turkish Cypriot voters. It’s because of this that we know how they voted.

This is not a very democratic way to conduct elections. But given the circumstances, that Cyprus is a divided island and there is only the Republic of Cyprus that is recognised and that they are organising the elections as an EU member state, they wanted Turkish Cypriots to vote in the areas under the control of the government so they wouldn’t take ballot boxes to the north.

But despite this, we could have done it differently of course. We could have allowed Turkish Cypriots to vote in any polling station and not just those separately allocated for them. And then, we had a lot of problems with the identity cards of Turkish Cypriots. Many voters couldn’t vote when they came to the polling stations. Their ID cards, even though they were issued by the Republic of Cyprus, somehow caused trouble, so they couldn’t vote. So this is another concern the Republic of Cyprus should take care of. All Turkish Cypriots need to be able to vote without any bureaucratic obstacle. These are two things I’m looking forward to changing before the next European elections.

TNF: How do you feel about your victory?

NK: Excellent! I wasn’t really surprised to be honest. First of all, I’m not a new person. I didn’t just come into politics out of nowhere, I wasn’t a newcomer. Maybe in party politics... but I had already been engaged for years in all parts of the island. Of course I felt very proud that we managed to get Turkish and Greek Cypriots to vote together, as I said from the very beginning of my campaign, I would not have deemed this a victory if I was elected only by one community. As a federalist, I wanted exactly this togetherness of citizens. And we achieved that, to a certain extent. In that sense, I am very satisfied.

TNF: Do you feel that it’s important that Turkish Cypriots take part in European elections?

NK: First of all, Turkish and Greek Cypriots can only vote together in European elections, never during national elections, because national elections are always built around ethnicity designed and done separately. So the only public sphere where we can act together politically, all citizens on the island, is the European elections. That is exactly the kind of federalist exercise which can also help for the future, I think.

Second thing is, in these elections we are voting according to ideologies and not according to nationality. So it’s a step beyond nationalism which I, of course, like a lot. And for Turkish Cypriots specifically, it’s very important for them. It’s an isolated community, it’s not part of the international community. So those EU elections are a kind of cry for help, to vote was to cry out “I AM A EUROPEAN CITIZEN!”, and that is very important for Turkish Cypriots.

TNF: How do you see Europe and the EU in 30 or 100 years? How do you see Cyprus in this Europe?

NK: This question takes me back to this very interesting historical lecture by Ernest Renan from 1882, called “What is a Nation?”. He said that nations are historically created things, and so one day we will overcome them, one day we will create a European confederation. One day we will all be federalists.

That is my wishful thinking, but my realistic account of the future of Europe is that we need a federal Europe, it’s Europe’s only chance to survive in the long term.

As for Cyprus… well, I’ll tell you something cynical: Cyprus can still be a divided country within a federal Europe. I’m referring to the lack of political will of the elites, lack of federal understanding. Of course this will change. Today, most elites are still firmly attached to the nationalist model, so they have to federalise themselves, their souls, their brains. I hope the future generations will achieve this. I hope to see Cyprus as a federal state in a bigger European federal construction.


[1Body of EU legislation.

[2Arte is a Franco-German TV channel, providing programming in both languages.

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