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A model to mend Europe’s nationalist cracks?

Shift in thought

Even as nationalist parties rise in Europe, the island of Cyprus is trying to end 43 years of division between ethnic Greeks and ethnic Turks. If a split Cyprus can unify, might it set an example?

People are reflected in a shop window on Ledras Street next to a peace sign near the UN-controlled buffer zone in Nicosia, Cyprus, Jan. 26.
Reuters | Caption
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Europe’s struggle against ethnic nationalism – the trigger for too many wars – has long relied on expanding people’s identity beyond bloodlines or the land of one’s birth. The struggle has lately intensified, reflected in Britain’s decision to exit the European Union (driven by English nationalism) and the rise of nationalist parties from Italy to Poland.

The most violent example is Ukraine’s war over its ethnic-Russian east. Overall in the EU, a median of 58 percent of people believe that a national of their country is only someone born there, according to a 2016 Pew survey.

Europe, in other words, could use an example of two peoples who, while sharply divided by ethnicity, are trying to define a civic nationalism that binds them. That example could be Cyprus, the only divided country in Europe.

Talks to reunite the Mediterranean island between its ethnic Greeks in the south and ethnic Turks in the north – divided since 1974 – are in an advanced stage. Even if this attempt to form a unified government fails – as it has in the past – the fact that two peoples in the European sphere are searching for a common identity to end a forced estrangement could act as a counterpoint to the nationalist trend.

The talks have progressed in part because of trust between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, his Turkish Cypriot counterpart. They hail from the same village. They have been able to work together on details over sovereignty, refugees, property, and the presence of foreign troops – especially Turkey’s 35,000 soldiers. The United Nations, Britain, and the EU are assisting on the sidelines.

Below the surface, however, social changes and economic demands, especially by young people, may be favoring reunification. “For a lot of us born after 1974, hope of a future in which our government is finally free to focus on education, technology, culture and social welfare is one of the few things that keeps us around,” writes a young filmmaker, Argyro Nicolaou, in the Cyprus Mail.

In 2003, Cypriot Greeks were allowed to travel to the north, where they were surprised by the warm reception of Cypriot Turks. “For so many years we had painted the face of the devil on the other,” schoolteacher Nikos Athanasiou told the Observer newspaper. “That’s when that stopped.”

A liberation of thought must precede the liberation of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots from their mutual victimhood and fears. Living on the same island, with a shared history of coexistence over centuries, they have too much to gain to still cling to ethnic antagonism. And they could find a common purpose in setting a model for the rest of Europe, which is cracking along ethnic lines.