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Cyprus: is federalism part of the solution?

Keynote at three dialogues on Canadian federalism with Greek-Cypriot, Turkish-Cypriot and respective journalists

May 7-8, 2019, Cyprus

Stéphane Dion
Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe and Canadian Ambassador in Germany

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the presence of Dr. Rita Severis, the Canadian Honorary Consul, and her team, who organized my visit to Cyprus and arranged today’s discussion, and also in the presence of our new High Commissioner to the Republic of Cyprus, Mr. Mark Allen, who presented his credentials just this morning, I want to thank each of you for making your way to the buffer zone, here today. 

As Prime Minister Trudeau’s Special Envoy to the European Union and Europe, my role is to strengthen the links between Canada and all European countries and to see how we may always learn from each other and work together, for more prosperity, justice, peace and democracy. As such, the first thing that I want to convey today is a message of admiration and hope from the people of Canada to the people of Cyprus.

Canadians have, indeed, an admiration for this island of such pristine beauty and vibrant culture that captivates the millions who, from around the world, are enchanted by it. An island at the entrance of the Middle East, which has lived through several powers, but triumphed in its own way by gaining from each of them a part of their culture. And then, a part of : the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks with Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic Egypt, the Classical and Eastern Roman Empire, the Arab caliphates, the French Lusignan dynasty, the Venetians, the Ottomans, and the British… before getting its independence in 1960. And always, through these influences, the Cypriot heritage enriched itself, beginning with the Cypria, one of the very first epic expressions of Greek and European poetry.

This admiration for Cyprus extends to a hope, and you undoubtedly know which one: that the island, which has undergone so much, and which has witnessed the birth of the philosophy of Stoicism, will find the wisdom to embody the noble aspiration of a generous pluralism that will engage both the Christian and Muslim communities. In this world filled with mistrust and prejudice, if Cyprus were to find the way towards mutual support between its Greek Christian and Turkish Muslim populations, it would not only be a benefit for the island, it would also be an inspiration for the rest of the world. I know that this hope of harmony lives and beats in the heart of Cyprus, it beats in the hearts of everyone who loves Cyprus. It beats in the heart of Canadians who will always be proud of having served in the UN peacekeeping mission from 1964 to 1993.

I know that ongoing division is not from a lack of trying to find a solution. However, the obstacles are considerable: the wounds of the past, nearly half a century of separation, tens of thousands of people displaced, jeopardized property rights, disputed territories, resources to be shared, the contested citizenship of people who arrived after the separation, security guaranties, foreign interferences. And of course, there is the issue of governance: how is it possible to govern together without one community feeling threatened and the other feeling thwarted?

The title of my presentation is “Cyprus: is federalism part of the solution?”  However, I will not answer this question. It is for you to find an answer. Canada supports the UN Security Council Resolutions in favour of a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation; yet I want to assure you that we believe that the solution to the Cyprus problem is one for the peoples of Cyprus to design and implement. I recognize that you represent different perspectives about the way forward for your communities: some of you may see the opportunities of a reunified Cyprus in a federation; others may believe it is time to adopt a two-state solution; and some of you may not yet be sure how to move forward.  We are looking for an open discussion, in which all peaceful perspectives can be shared and respected.

I will limit my role to expose my own understanding of the federal system, which is one of my areas of expertise.  I will naturally insist on Canada’s experience in bringing together different communities, including English-speakers and French-speakers, under a common federation.  My hope is that it might expand your options for how you approach the way forward.

Federalism is not the only way to gain unity in diversity, but it is the one that has been adopted by several countries with diverse and multicultural populations, including Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, India, South Africa, and Nigeria.

From a technical point of view, federalism is the provision of legislative jurisdictions through a constitution to a federal parliament and to the legislative assemblies of the federated entities, each being directly elected by the people. Such a system enables a population that is a minority at the national level, but a majority at a territorial level, to benefit from autonomy where it is the majority. This is the case with Francophones in Canada, where they are a majority in Quebec, the second largest of the ten provinces in terms of population and the largest in terms of surface area.

Federalism is therefore a principle of autonomy. But it is not just that, it is also a principle of union. From a philosophical point of view, federalism is the combination of both these principles: union and autonomy. Both must be kept firmly in mind. Union makes it possible to bring together willingness and talent in the achievement of common goals. This principle of union can be found mostly in common institutions: the federal parliament, the federal executive branch, the central bank, the federal courts, and the supreme court.

However, the federated entities, strengthened by their autonomy, must also adhere to this union principle, what the German Constitution or Basic Law justly calls “federal loyalty.” They must seek to contribute to the well-being and progress of the country as a whole. In return, federal institutions, including the government and parliament, must take the country’s diversity into account when making decisions.

To achieve this, an array of institutional and legislative provisions is needed. This is how in Canada, a decentralized federation, the Constitution grants a significant portion of the public responsibilities or jurisdictions to the ten federated entities, called provinces. Our three Northern territories have responsibilities that are almost as broad in scope. The only province with a Francophone majority, Quebec, has special provisions such as a legal system that is based on the Civil Code rather than the Common Law. The Government of Quebec assumes its constitutional jurisdictions fully, in addition to being a regular champion of provincial autonomy.

Federal institutions take Canada’s linguistic duality into account. The Constitution recognizes both English and French as official languages, the Parliament operates in both languages, and the federal government is required to offer its services in both languages wherever the numbers warrant.

In addition, the Constitution contains a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that enshrines basic individual rights, as well as the rights of Indigenous peoples and the principle of multiculturalism.

For Francophone Quebecers like me, Canadian federalism provides autonomy for Quebec and also the opportunity to contribute to the rest of Canada. We benefit from Canadian mutual assistance and we contribute to it through our efforts and talents. This is what the federal spirit, imbued with autonomy and union, provides us. Some Quebecers would prefer to always be in a majority situation and would like to see Quebec become an independent country, being no longer part of Canada. I believe they are wrong and that Canada must not inflict such a fractious spectacle on the world. I believe that Canada must in fact continue to be living proof that a country can achieve its universal aspirations when it relies on its diversity.

This of course means that the minority populations must agree to live in the same country as another larger population. I know of no federation that guarantees parity to a minority group in all circumstances. In the parliaments of Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, French-speakers are minorities with respect to English-speakers, Dutch‑speakers and German-speakers.

I know that an important subject in discussions here is what has been called a positive vote: under what circumstances should a federal bill or initiative need approval from both communities before being adopted?

To my knowledge, Belgium is the federation that has pushed such parity guarantees the furthest for the minority population. The Chamber of Representatives has 150 elected representatives, including 87 from Dutch-speaking districts and 63 from French-speaking districts (and a few German-speaking districts). Francophones are, therefore, a minority when voting on most legislation. However, when it comes to very specific laws, so-called special laws, pertaining to relations between the Federal Authority, the Communities and the Regions, a two-thirds majority of elected representatives as well as a majority in each linguistic group is required for these laws to be passed or amended.

In addition to that, they also have an “alarm bell” mechanism. If, during discussions on a proposal or bill, a linguistic group (this would mostly be the Francophones since they are the minority) feels threatened, it can sound this alarm bell: it would then submit a reasoned motion signed by at least three quarters of the members of one of the linguistic groups and declare that the provisions of the bill or proposed law would negatively impact relations between the communities. The normal parliamentary procedure is then suspended, and the issue is deferred to the Federal Council of Ministers. If no agreement can be reached, there is a political impasse and the chambers are dissolved. This alarm bell has been used only twice. But this type of mechanism has mostly a preventive effect: it encourages negotiations beforehand and dissuades the pursuit of measures that would surely be rejected by the other group.

Such special law and “alarm bell” mechanisms could also apply to the legislative assembly of each federated entity, benefiting the given minority group there. This is what we see in Belgium in the Brussels region, this time benefiting the Dutch-speaking minority.

Thus, all democratic federations offer constitutional guaranties and protections to their minority populations. But at the end of the day, no federation can exist without a solid dose of mutual good faith between the minorities and the majority. This essential good faith must be built, taught and maintained. Federalism is more than an institutional mechanism: it is a mindset, a societal philosophy, based on tolerance, mutual respect, and the conviction that the country’s diversity must become one of its strengths.

Most of all, each individual must come to see himself or herself in a way other than just through ethnic, linguistic or religious affiliations. I am not just a Francophone Quebecer, I am also a resident of a large city, an academic, a federal civil servant, a citizen of liberal philosophy, a father, a hockey fan, a lover of nature and the arts. All these affiliations intermix that I often find myself in agreement and acting together with fellow Canadians who do not necessarily speak my language or who do not always live in my province. It would, therefore, be a mistake to build a federation that would see its citizens solely and always based on a few predefined collective attributes.

So, these are some considerations that may help guide you in the quest for a solution and which could combine the principles of union and autonomy. You may draw inspiration from what is being done in Canada, Belgium or elsewhere, but always under the same universal quest for unity through diversity: diverse populations coming together to make a better society consisting of citizens who respect, appreciate and help one another. The goal is to have Turkish Muslim Cypriots, although the minority, feel confident, and to have Greek Christian Cypriots not feel divested or thwarted; And to have everyone see themselves as free and supportive fellow citizens.

Is it in Cyprus interest to be a federation? Or are there better solutions? Once again, it is for you to answer. The challenges are enormous, but certainly not insurmountable. We have to believe this, for all Cypriots and for the world. For this important goal, Cyprus can always count on Canada.

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