20 years of Cyprus in the EU – Phoebus Athanassiou

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20 years of Cyprus in the EU - Phoebus Athanassiou

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.


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Phoebus Athanassiou, you are Associate Professor at the Wolfgang Goethe University of Frankfurt. How old were you when Cyprus, your country of origin, became a member of the European Union on the 1st of May 2004?

I was 28 years old, working as an associate at a law firm in Athens, where I lived at the time. Actually, the day I remember more clearly was 16 April 2003, when the Treaty of Accession for the 2004 enlargement was signed in Athens, at the Attalos Arcade, at the heart of the Athens Agora. It was a sunny spring day, and the Athenian sky smiled down at the representatives of the ten new Member States as they took the final big step before their countries’ formal EU accession, one year later. The atmosphere in Athens was festive that day, and I remember partaking in the festive mood, conscious that, for Cyprus, the journey to accession had been a long and tortuous one.


What were you doing at the time of the May 2004 enlargement?

The law firm I was working for, at the time, was closely involved in preparing Cyprus for its accession to the EU, by helping the Ministry of Finance to align national law with the acquis in the fields of banking and securities law. I had been involved in that work since 2002, and Cyprus’s accession was, for me personally, a cause for satisfaction, as I had contributed, through my work, to the preparation.

I learned a lot in the process, both about national and EU law, and came out of it better prepared for the next step in my career. In September 2004, barely five months down the line, I moved to Frankfurt, to work for the European Central Bank, with a focus on Cypriot legal issues, on much the same areas of the law as those I had worked on between 2002 and 2004. A happy coincidence, one might say, and a life-changing event, made possible thanks to the Cypriot accession.


So you were an active contributor to the accession process! What is your assessment, today, of the last twenty years?

Well, what is important to understand is that Cyprus was an atypical accession country among the 2004 enlargement wave, with its case only comparing, somewhat, to that of Malta.

As explained in an article we recently wrote with Stéphanie Laulhé Shaelou, a law professor at the Cyprus campus of the University of Central Lancashire, what the country aspired to was mainly enhanced security vis-à-vis its largest northern neighbour. What was needed was leverage, in its efforts to re-unite the island after its division, back in 1974, when Turkey had invaded Cyprus and occupied nearly 40% of its territory. Unlike the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Cyprus did not join NATO, nor NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative, and, as a result, it sought in its EU membership the security benefits that other candidate countries had already attained through their NATO membership. Democratisation and economic development were also low on Cyprus’s list of priorities, as the country already was a well-established, functioning democracy with an open economy and a high per capita income, the highest, by the way, amongst the 2004 enlargement wave, and one of the highest in the EU.


Did Cyprus reap the fruits of its EU accession, as planned?

Yes and no. Cyprus’s EU Membership has not, to date, contributed to the resolution of the Cyprus dispute.

But even if Cyprus remains divided, 20 years after its accession, its EU membership has certainly helped to improve public perceptions of security on the island, which is in a particularly troubled part of the world, plagued by recurrent wars and grave geopolitical unrest.

Ironically, it is on the economic front that Cyprus was to benefit the most from its EU and euro area membership. You will recall that, between 2011 and 2013, Cyprus faced a severe economic downturn, the root causes of which were unrelated to its EU participation. It was largely thanks to the solidarity of its EU and euro area partners that Cyprus was able to overcome this grave economic challenge, after it had lost access to the capital markets and after third countries had refused to help finance Cyprus’s way out of its twin fiscal and banking sector crises. Cyprus has since returned to economic health, and it is currently playing a constructive role, also on behalf of the EU, as its advanced hearing and first response station in the Middle East.


Thank you very much, Phoebus Athanassiou, for sharing with us your personal testimony and your assessment of the last 20 years. All the best for the next twenty years!