Cyprus starts out on its presidency of the European Union's Council of Ministers knowing that expectations are low and apprehension is high. The intractable division of its Greek south and Turkish north has made Cyprus a synonym for division. This presidency will be administered only by the Greek Cypriot government, which rules over a population of just 800,000. The permanent representation to the EU normally numbers just 80 people.
Even in ordinary times, these handicaps would make the presidency a challenge. But these are not the best of times: the eurozone is in crisis, neighbouring Greece is in turmoil and, just half a day's boat trip away, Syria is in flames.
That need not doom Cyprus's presidency from the outset. Other presidencies have also had ill-starred starts. Within days of assuming the presidency in 2011, Hungary was caught in a political storm about its media law, which continued to thunder, yet the presidency was generally praised as effective. Hungary's Prime Minister Victor Orbán focused on his domestic interests, and treated the presidency as a responsibility to be left largely in the hands of the civil service.
The government says the Cypriot presidency (or Cyprus presidency, as it insists on calling it, in another sign of community sensitivities) is an opportunity – but for self-transformation and modernisation, rather than self-projection. The government points out that it has just one national priority, an integrated maritime strategy (see opposite page). The rest of its agenda is inherited, and its approach to the agenda is to be an honest broker.
An honest broker
For a country of its size and economic structure, the role of honest broker comes naturally. The Cypriot population depends on services, rather than on money from the EU's Common Agricultural or Fisheries Policies. Cyprus contributes more than it receives from the EU's budget, which, politically, should make it easier to achieve its aim of championing solidarity. It claims to be a small country with few irons in the fire.
But the one big iron that remains has caused many problems. The division of the island has retarded progress in the EU's relationship with Turkey, complicated the EU's security ties with NATO, and caused Cyprus not to recognise Kosovo as a state. It even contributes to the closeness of Cyprus's relationship with Russia, which may this summer save it from an EU and International Monetary Fund bail-out. The success of the presidency may depend on whether the issue of Turkey can be anaesthetised for the duration of the presidency.
Cyprus itself does not intend to raise issues related to Turkey. Turkey has said that it will boycott the presidency in its entirety. The Turkish Cypriots are largely ignoring the presidency. But the danger remains that Cyprus's non-relations with Turkey will surface as a problem.
Any presidency's intentions can be blown off course by unexpected challenges. And Cyprus's aspirations to be an honest broker would mean little if it lacks the staff to broker deals. For Cyprus, the challenge is all the greater because it is, geographically, the most remote presidency that there has ever been.
The national air carrier has responded by setting up six direct flights a week from Nicosia to Brussels for the duration of the presidency, but the main decision has been to make this a Brussels-based presidency. Informal ministerial meetings will be held in a conference centre in Nicosia, newly revamped for the presidency, but almost all other meetings will be held in Brussels. The permanent representation in Brussels has been swollen to 230 people for a year, by re-deploying civil servants who normally work in Nicosia.
This mobilisation, which includes the creation of a post of minister of EU affairs specifically for the presidency, is a mark of an administration that is being stretched by its responsibility to the EU. Unsurprisingly, then, the presidency is limiting its own ambitions.
Low expectations may have a benefit for the presidency: it leaves room for welcome surprises.