THE FIRST ministerial visit from the current UK government ended on a sticky note on Tuesday after Europe Minister David Lidington made an “unfortunate” comment comparing property problems which exist north and south of the island, prompting a public rebuke from the Cyprus foreign ministry.
After meeting President Demetris Christofias on Monday, Lidington met Foreign Minister Marcos Kyprianou, DISY opposition leader Nicos Anastassiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu on tuesday.
The early morning joint press conference between Kyprianou and Lidington offered no surprises, keeping relations between Britain and its former colony on a firm footing.
However, during a separate press conference later in the day, Lidington was asked to comment on the fact that many British citizens buy Greek Cypriot properties in the occupied north and are then issued with illegal Title Deeds.
The Europe Minister responded: “The problem about title to a property is by no means one confined to the north of the island. There are issues to do with title and possession that apply to some British expatriates living south of the island as well.”
When quizzed further on the issue, he said: “This is not something that is a problem for the north of the island only. I have letters from (British) MPs about the property issue in the south of Cyprus too.”
He added: “I am concerned to make sure as a British minister that the concerns of British citizens expressed to me by their members of parliament are understood by my colleagues here in Cyprus.”
The reference to the thousands of legal property owners in Cyprus still without Title Deeds, the majority of whom are Cypriot, may have won the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron some friends among British expats on the island but did not score any points with the foreign ministry.
The ministry found the apparent link made between a political problem and a largely administrative issue a tad unfortunate.
In a statement released on Tuesday evening, the ministry said it was “at the very least unfortunate comparing and associating the usurpation of stolen Greek Cypriot properties in the occupied areas – the owners of which were expelled by force of arms as a result of the Turkish invasion and continuing occupation – with any legal or other problems that may arise from the purchase of immoveable property in the free areas by Britons.”
Regarding Lidington’s claim that he raised the issue of pending Title Deeds in the government-controlled areas with his Cypriot colleagues, the ministry maintained no such issue was raised. “Despite the fact that these issues did not come up in meetings with Mr Lidington, the Cyprus government is making every possible effort to address and resolve the issue of granting Title Deeds to legitimate property owners.”
Lidington’s comments were also described by DISY deputy Zacharias Zachariou as “totally unacceptable”. He accused Lidington of ignoring the British Court of Appeal’s ruling in favour of Greek Cypriot property owner Meletios Apostolides over the British Orams couple who were illegally resident on his land in the north.
DIKO MP Angelos Votsis said the minister’s statements “sent another message that this is the Britain we know so don’t get fooled into thinking it wants to help find a solution to the Cyprus problem.”
Asked to comment, spokesman for the British High Commission Paul Lakin said last night: “The minister was not making a comparison between the two issues but simply observing, as a UK minister, what his constituents and fellow MPs raise with him.”
Meanwhile, on the British government’s approach on the Cyprus problem, Lidington said: “We believe there is a moment of opportunity now available following the parliamentary elections both here in Cyprus and in Turkey.”
He hoped the July 7 Geneva meeting between the two leaders and the UN chief will “galvanise” the leaderships of both communities “to look anew on how to find a way forward to tackle the outstanding difficulties that stand in the way of a settlement, and not just be restricted to taking stock of what’s happened so far”.
Regarding the UN’s continued interest in the problem, Lidington highlighted that one “cannot take it for granted that their priority will continue to be with Cyprus if there is little sign of progress being made”.