Monday, 22 March 2021

The British SBAs in Cyprus: past, present and future

UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab
In Global Britain in a competitive age: the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, published by the UK government last week, which seeks to set out Britain’s role in the world post-Brexit, there is reference to the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus, established in 1960 by the London-Zurich agreements that granted Cyprus nominal independence. 

Tellingly mentioned under the rubric of Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, the UK government envisages significant investment in the SBAs to make them ‘strategic hubs’ that will give the UK armed forces ‘reach, access, influence and insight’. The strategic aim of the British presence in Cyprus, the report tells us is to ‘assure our ability to contribute to security, with allies, in the Eastern Mediterranean.’

In fact, Cyprus’ strategic significance was always cited by the British during the anti-colonial struggle as to why the island could not be allowed to slip from London’s grasp, though this grandiose, melodramatic claim has to be tempered with the knowledge that when Cypriots were clamouring for Enosis with Greece, Greece was prepared to offer the British, in exchange for the transfer of the island’s sovereignty, military facilities on Cyprus to allow the former superpower to continue with the pretence that it remained a significant global actor.

The British never seriously engaged with Greece’s offer, suggesting that the strategic argument for holding onto Cyprus was one Britain deployed to cover up its real reasons for wanting to maintain a foothold in Cyprus, which had more to do with prestige and proving – to the British elite if to nobody else – that Britain was not a declining power but a serious player.

This fiction of Britain as a serious player was ruthlessly exposed in the 1960s when Britain’s economic malaise saw it rapidly withdraw from its post-imperial commitments.

As Britain lurched from one balance of payments crisis to the next, the Labour government headed by Harold Wilson took the decision to slash defence expenditure and, in particular, Britain’s overseas commitments. Within a decade, it was planned that British forces stationed in Cyprus, Malta, Guyana, Aden, Singapore, Malaya would return home or be severely curtailed. It was only America’s insistence that in return for supporting the pound, Britain would not withdraw altogether from the security facilities it had inherited from its imperial past that preserved the British presence in Cyprus.

Following the financial crash of 2008, a defence review by the Labour government led by Gordon Brown once again raised the possibility of Britain closing or drastically reducing the SBAs; but when the Conservatives came to power in June 2010, the idea of Britain abandoning or minimising its Cyprus facilities was shelved.

Despite occasional rhetoric – particularly from the Cypriot left and Cypriot nationalists – about the SBAs being ‘colonial remnants’ and calls for demilitarising Cyprus, a reference not only to Turkey’s occupying forces but also to the SBAs, the Cypriot government has never seriously considered demanding talks with London about the status of the bases.

The reasons for this are numerous. It starts with the 11,000 jobs the SBAs provide for locals; then there’s the recognition that the Cyprus government derives its legitimacy – and its ability to resist Turkey – from the 1960 constitution so that any attempt to rewrite those documents may end up undermining rather than enhancing Cypriot sovereignty. Also, even though during the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974, Britain did not fulfil its obligations as a guarantor power, there remains a belief among Cypriots that the British presence in Cyprus acts as a deterrent to further Turkish aggression. Then there’s the strategic decision made by successive Cypriot governments of not wanting to alienate Britain given that the existential threat to the island derives from Turkey’s occupation not the SBAs and Cyprus is reliant, for better or worse (mostly for worse) on Britain’s role as a guarantor power, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and its special relationship with Turkey to maintain international interest in the Cyprus problem.

However, while most Cypriots are reconciled tot the presence of the British bases, this does not mean that their status is beyond question. Indeed, it is the sovereign nature of the bases that Cypriots find most irksome and if the Cyprus government ever does approach London about the SBAs it won’t be to demand their removal but the ceding of their sovereignty, in which case Cyprus would lease its territory to Britain for military purposes rather than have the British do what they please on Cypriot soil, with no Cypriot say-so and without paying for the privilege.