Amidst the analysis of Turkey’s “eastern turn” and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) alleged ambivalence toward Europe, the ongoing political conflict among Turkey, Greece, Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots, and the European Union over Cyprus remains the largest obstacle to Turkey’s European Union accession.
European leaders are holding a summit today and tomorrow in Brussels to decide whether to make Cyprus an even bigger impediment to Turkey’s membership. I think this would be a mistake, but first a bit of background.
Cyprus is a small island in the Eastern Mediterranean – about 40 miles south of Turkey and 60 miles west of Syria – divided between Turkish Cypriots in the North and Greek Cypriots in the south. The Greek Cypriot government is recognized by the international community (with the exception of Turkey) as exercising sovereignty over the entire island. However, the Greek Cypriot government’s sovereignty over the northern part of the island has been true only in theory since the Turkish Cypriots formed their own government and declared an independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983. The two entities are completely separate politically and a visitor to Northern Cyprus is unlikely to meet a single Greek. (Full Disclosure – I recently returned from attending the TNRC’s independence day celebration as a guest of the government).
Turkey remains heavily involved on the island as a result of the massive subsidy it provides to keep the TRNC economically viable. Turkey also maintains somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 soldiers (estimates vary) on the northern part of the island. The Turkish army invaded the island when violence broke out between Turks and Greeks in 1974, and has insisted on staying since in order to guarantee the security of the Turkish Cypriots.
The last opportunity for a solution came in 2004 when the “Annan Plan” of a bizonal, bicommunal, bifederal, unified state was voted down by the Greek Cypriots in a referendum.
The reason that the conflict represents an existential threat to Turkey’s European Union negotiations is that the Greek Cypriot government (or the Republic of Cyprus, as they preferred to be called) became a member of the European Union in May 2004.
As a result of the ongoing conflict – and specifically Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports
to Greek Cypriot vessels – the Greek Cypriots have blocked eight of the 35 negotiating chapters Turkey must fulfill to become part of Europe.
That brings us to today’s summit and whether Europe should impose additional sanctions on Turkey.
If there is one thing that I learned from my meetings in Cyprus with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot government officials and journalists it is that Turkey is very unlikely to “sell out” the Turkish Cypriots in order to curry favor with Europe. Imposing further sanctions will not change Turkey’s strategic calculus with regard to Cyprus and is unlikely to encourage Turkey to make concessions.
It is especially important for Europe to tread lightly right now given the status of the negotiations between Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat and Greek Cypriot President Demetris Christofias. Talat and Christofias represent the most conciliatory parts of each side’s highly nationalist political spectrum. The two leaders have met dozens of times over the past fourteen months to try to hash out an agreement.
While the talks are not going well, there is no good reason for Europe to make it easier for nationalist elements in Turkey and on both sides of Cyprus to stifle the negotiations. This is especially true given that President Talat faces reelection in April and is likely to lose to a more hard-line candidate (most likely current hard-line Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Dervis Eroglu) if he cannot deliver a deal.
Europe also risks its credibility as a global actor if it allows one (or two – if you include Greece) country to dictate its foreign policy on such an important issue. The best thing Europe can do now is try to get out of the way and hope the parties can reach an agreement.
— Ben Katcher