Cyprus and the European Union: A Savior and its Double

On March 19, 2013, the members of the Cypriot Parliament were called to make a decision that could have changed the lives of Europeans forever. The Parliament was asked to accept or reject the bailout plan set by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (Troika). The plan would dip into the depositors’ bank accounts to help save the Cypriot banks from bankruptcy. Αs many economic analysts said, the proposed imposition of a levy (“haircut”) of 6.75% on bank deposits less than 100.00 euros was an unprecedented event in the world’s economic history. While large groups of protesters gathered outside the Cypriot Parliament waiting for the result of the vote, Spanish protesters gathered in Madrid knowing that they could be next with a possible imposition of a levy of 0.2% on their bank deposits over 100.00 euros.

The unanimous rejection (the “No”) of the haircut by the members of the Parliament had no impact whatsoever on whether the European bail out plan would eventually be implemented or not. To the surprise of the Cypriot citizens the Troika eventually imposed the closing of Cyprus Popular Bank, one of the country’s largest, costing account holders 4.9 billion euros and proceeded with the haircut of 60% on bank deposits over 100.00 euros for deposits in the Bank of Cyprus.

Then, Cypriots, albeit in a state of shock, seeing their life savings, their pensions and their businesses vanishing in front of their eyes, instantly invented various support mechanisms in order to deal with the upcoming shortages: the power supply company reduced its monthly fees; the telecommunication authority provided free telephone service for April; doctor Eleni Theocharous established a temporary nursing unit to provide free health care; bakeries decreased the price of milk and bread. Α Day Long Solidarity Concert with title “People for People” took place on April 1st  to collect food supplies for the poor (video). Think tanks, comprised by civilians, are currently being formed to find innovative ways to reclaim democracy and facilitate future everyday economic exchanges.

The Cypriot “No” was a reminder that the European community breathes (perhaps its last breaths) at the Community’s periphery. According to Costas Douzinas it “was the first formal rebuff of austerity, something that the obedient governments of southern Europe had not dared” (The Guardian). The parliament’s “No” cost the Cypriots one of their biggest banks, even though as many have argued the bank would be lost regardless; yet it affirmed their faith in democracy and European solidarity regardless of the financial cost. Little did the common Cypriots know about the existing divisions within the E.U. in which the individual democratic decision-making processes of nations are, since the Lisbon treaty, subject to the authority of the supranational European Commission.

A History of Cypriot Multiculturalism
Cyprus has been representing for centuries what the European Union aims towards: to be a place of free movement and neutral identity, a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural community. Cyprus has been a place of multicultural and multiethnic exchange for centuries. Two articles, “Ports of Call” by Sharon Kinoshita & Jason Jacob and, “Noi Siamo Mercatanti Cypriani” by Sharon Kinoshita, analyze Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350c) in order to make a claim about medieval Mediterranean connectivity and cultural exchange. Their work suggests that proclaiming oneself a “Cypriot merchant” in the 14th century Mediterranean came with a vague and indefinite connotation about who this person actually was in terms of his religious, cultural and “national” identity.

In Boccaccio’s Decameron Cyprus was a place of connection and accommodation, a crossroad for ships and merchants of many nations, languages and religious affiliations (Kinoshita & Jacobs 183). The island was a true center of trade where maritime routes from Latin Europe met the land routes coming from central Asia, the Indian Ocean and beyond. By the turn of the 14th century merchants, bankers and ship owners from Genoa, Pisa, Venice, Florence, Piacenza, Ancora, Padua, Barcelona and Provence and their businesses were thriving on the island. Everyday, from dawn to dusk, one could hear “the tongues of every nation under heaven” in the ports of Cyprus. With its francophone kings, its majoritarian Greek-speaking majority, Italian merchant colonies and its Arabic-speaking Levantine Christian communities, its visiting Provencal and Catalan merchants, Cyprus was a multilingual, multiethnic and multi-religious place (Kinoshita 50).

The story of Saladin in Boccaccio’s Decameron exemplifies the vagueness of the Cypriot identity. Saladin, Sultan of Babylon (Cairo), disguised himself as a Cypriot merchant, traveling from East to West, at the time of the Crusades, to gauge the West’s level of preparedness for the upcoming Crusade (Kinoshita 44). On his way, he arrived in Pavia, Italy and met townsman Masser Torello. Having been asked who he was, Saladin did not want to reveal his true identity, fearing persecution for his religious and ethnic affiliation as a Muslim Babylonian. The anonymous “Cypriot merchant,” that is a recurring figure in Boccaccio’s Decameron, served as a plausible disguise for Saladin as it was a term that was deliciously vague (Kinoshita 49, 50).

To be a “Cypriot” at the time of the Crusades was to be ethnically anyone. “Cypriot” was a symbol of peace and friendship, bridging the differences between the East and West. You could have been an Egyptian, a Greek, an Italian, a Spaniard, or a Frank but you could call yourself a “Cypriot” and acquire an overarching international status. But the “Cypriot” in Decameron was not only a symbol of vague and indefinite identity. Cyprus allowed Saladin to choose “Cypriot” as a “nationality” suggesting he was arriving as an ally and friend.

Boccaccio’s image of the Cypriot is relevant today. Due to the unceasing movement of immigrants, asylum seekers, entrepreneurs and soldiers over their land, Cypriots are accustomed to intercultural exchange. In 1946-49, under British colonial government, 51,000 Jews from the Balkans and Eastern European countries immigrated to Cyprus and lived in refugee camps there. In the early to mid-1980s many affluent Arabs (mostly Lebanese and Palestinians) came to Cyprus following the collapse of Beirut. These business people utilized the infrastructural, tax and offshore incentives that Cyprus had to offer to develop their own businesses (Demetriou & Trimikliniotis 2005: 9). Cyprus accommodated asylum-seekers from Nigeria, Cameroon, the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan throughout the second half of the 20th century and beginnings of the 21st century. Russian Pontians came to Cyprus as permanent residents from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. With a total population of approximately 1 million people, the island is now filled with immigrants from many different countries. Trimikliniotis and Demetriou (2005) show that 80,000 immigrants from Greece, the United Kingdom, Russia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania lived in Cyprus in 2004, which is equal to the number of Turkish Cypriots. British, Swedish and other Northern European retirees reside today in its picturesque villages. British and American soldiers work at their countries’ military bases on the island, along with the United Nations multiethnic units that have guarded the buffer zone since 1964.

Multiculturalism in a Post-Democratic Society

Today, it seems that the Northern European countries’ financial goals stand above the decisions of individual nation-members, especially those in the South. This is apparent from the eradication of the sovereignty of the member states after the approval of the Lisbon Treaty (2007). The E.U.’s Lisbon Treaty replaced the unanimous voting system, that used to give equal voting power to all state-members, with a majority vote system in which the most powerful nations hold a stronger vote within the European parliament.

The bankruptcy crises in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece – as well as the role of the European commission in restructuring their economies – unearthed a crucial feature of the E.U.: its role as an organization that commands the restructuring of financial systems of the periphery, and that subsequently imposes a version of an old-new economic model, known as ordoliberalism, according to which the markets need to be regulated.

The Lisbon treaty signaled the inauguration of a post-democratic European community. The treaty came as a replacement of the rejected European constitution by Dutch and French voters in 2005 and by Irish in 2008 and as previously said moved the decision-making process away from individual member states. Under this new set of rules the nations can pass their own laws but as members of the E.U., their decisions are subject to the European Commission’s authority. In this post-democratic Europe, the Cypriot Parliament was called on March 19, 2013 to accept or reject the bailout plan of the Troika.

The disappointment with the European Union’s dysfunctional and post-democratic practices is now sensed intensely in Cyprus. The entrance of Cyprus in the European Union in 2004 had reconstituted the lost multiculturalism and reignited the movement of peoples and trade that Boccaccio talks about. It restored Cyprus into that which it had been: a place for everyone and for all peoples.

A Savior and its Double

Cyprus parliament’s vote wasn’t the end of the Cypriot financial adventure. In order to understand the dynamics of Europe and Cyprus in regards to the bailout plan, let’s turn back to another story of the Decameron, that of Alatiel and Cypriot Antigonos.

This story portrays the Cypriot as the savior of the beautiful Alatiel, wandering in the Mediterranean, sexually violated by a number of men. Alatiel, the daughter of the sultan of Babylon (Cairo), dispatched from Alexandria to be wed to the Muslim king of Algrave (Portugal), is shipwrecked on the island of Majorca. There she is rescued by a nobleman, Pericone of Visalgo, who seduces her. After his death, Alatiel passes from one man to another – including two Genoese ship owners, the prince of Achaea, the duke of Athens, the prince of Constantinople, the Turkish emir of Smyrna and a Cypriot merchant. Eventually, in Famagusta of Cyprus, she is recognized by one of her father’s former retainers, Antigonos, who is ready to return her to her father (Kinoshita & Jacobs 163). But Alatiel tells Antigonos that, “I would have preferred for my life to have ended that way [at sea] rather than to have led the life I have lived. And I think my father would wish the same thing if he ever found out about it” (Kinoshita & Jacobs 184).  She expresses the wish that she had never been saved from the shipwreck. Antigonos, in spite of Alatiel’s acknowledgement of her altered status as a woman, decides to save her. He provides her with a fictional cover story to explain away her long absence: that all this time she lived with the nuns of the convent of San Cresci in Valcava. Antigonos himself supplements the story by saying that she lived a virtuous life with the nuns and she displayed a praiseworthy behavior. Thus, Alatiel is restored and returned to her origins due to Antigonos’ good will. The sultan, who is very pleased, rewards Antigonos and sends him back to Cyprus (Kinoshita & Jacobs 185).  Despite being violated by many men throughout her travels, Alatiel now appears as a virgin. The Cypriot Antigonos restored her fictional virginity and modest behavior. In this Boccaccian story the Cypriot does not denounce or punish the evils of the sea, the pirates, the princes and dukes, Alatiel’s violators. Instead, he maintains the status quo and restores the lie of her virginity.

By reading the story of Alatiel and Antigonos, with the Cypriot financial crisis in mind, one might tend to think of Cyprus, the one currently in need of financial aid, as Alatiel. The story, however, presents a different angle. The Cypriot is not the victim but the savior. Though it may seem paradoxical, Alatiel – the tortured and violated woman who realizes her self-canceling existence, cannot be other than Europe, suffering manifold financial crises, popular protests, divisions amongst its members and violations by its authorities. The European project that had to do with the eradication of injustice and conflict within the European continent, and the establishment of an environment of solidarity among its nations was the lie that the Cypriot parliament came to restore. Like Antigonos, the parliament supplemented the fictional cover story of Europe as a multicultural community that treats all nations equally and respects their democratic parliamentary decisions.

The contemporary Cypriot “No” to European authoritarianism carries the burden of Boccaccio’s soteriology with the Cypriot as the protagonist in the preservation of the status-quo, even-though Europe/Alatiel ask for the cancellation of their existence.

The instinctive “No” of the Cypriot parliament had more to do with Cypriots’ deep historical consciousness of incessant colonization and subordination, more recently to the British and the Ottomans, rather than with their material existence as an economic entity in the neoliberal world. Like Antigonos, Cyprus – which accounts for two tenths of a percent of the European GDP – takes on the symbolic burden of the lie to save Alatiel’s life (i.e. E.U). The tragedy of Antigonos is to be found in the minute detail of the sultan’s gifts: in the harsh Mediterranean world of competitive trade and piracy, Antigonos returns Alatiel to the sultan, not so that he can receive gifts but so he can be the heroic savior [σωσίας], meaning both “savior” and “double.”

Cyprus is both the EU’s savior and counterpart. While the E.U. offered a form of financial salvation to Cyprus through the bailout plan, Cyprus offered a more meaningful ideological salvation to the European Union through its rejection of the bail out.  Cyprus’ “No” had more to do with what was a righteous decision not only for the Cypriots but for the idea of the E.U. Immediately after the parliament’s meeting on March 19, its president, Yiannakis Omerou, said that the parliament’s decision would, in a way, protect the other countries of the E.U. from the implementation of a similar haircut policy of bank accounts with less than 100.00 euros. In rejecting the plan, despite of the destructive economic consequences that followed, Cyprus helped to preserve the European project’s most important value, solidarity.

Perhaps, what remains to be saved now are the remnants of the European Union project. The Cypriot “No” was a voice crying for such a saving.

Listen more on NPR : The Cypriots’ New World Marred with Uncertainty

Works Cited

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, R. & Petkov, K. (ed.) (2012). “Noi Siamo Mercatanti Cipriani. How to do things in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Philippe de Mezieres and His Age. Piety and Politics in the Fourteenth Century. Brill: Leiden – Boston.

Kinoshita, S. & Jacobs, J. (2007). “Ports of Call: Boccaccio’s Alatiel in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 37:1.

Demetriou, C. & Trimikliniotis, N. (2005). “Active Civic Participation of Immigrants in Cyprus.” Country Report prepared for the European research project POLITIS, Oldenburg.

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About Maria Hadjipolycarpou

Training and development / Research / Global Communications
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