Cyprus, Turkey and the European Union

A Mediterranean maelstrom – Published on The Economist, Decmber 10, 2009.

Turkey’s fading hopes of joining the European Union would be hugely boosted by a Cyprus settlement, for which the next few weeks will be critical.

IT IS no secret that negotiations on Turkish membership of the European Union are going slowly. Only one of the 35 “chapters”, on research, has been completed. Five are blocked by a French veto on anything implying Turkey’s eventual accession. Eight have been frozen since December 2006 to punish the Turks for not opening their ports and airports to Cyprus (ie, the Greek-Cypriot republic). On December 8th the EU agreed to open just one new chapter, on the environment. 

This week’s annual stocktake on progress with Turkey was gloomy. Public opinion is shifting, too: Turkish support for EU accession fell from 70% in 2004 to 42% in 2008. The new president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, once said Turkey would never be part of Europe, a sentiment shared by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet Western diplomats tell the Turks that time is on their side, and that presidents come and go …

… A communist to the rescue
Mr Christofias and Mr Talat duly set about new formal talks in September 2008. They opened an extra crossing-point over the “green line” on Ledra Street, Nicosia’s main shopping street. The UN wearily agreed to join in again and Alexander Downer, a former Australian foreign minister, was made special envoy.

Yet no sooner had the talks started than they began to drag. Mr Christofias was determined not to revert to the Annan plan, whereas Mr Talat wanted it to be the basis of discussion. Under each of the six headings for the talks—economics, the EU, governance, territory, security and property—the positions staked out by the two men’s chief negotiators (George Iacovou for Mr Christofias and Ozdil Nami for Mr Talat) seemed far apart.

Even so, some progress has been made, partly because the number of meetings between Mr Christofias and Mr Talat has risen to two a week (it may rise to three in January). Economics and the EU are largely resolved. After months of argument about the roles and voting arrangements for a rotating (Greek-Cypriot) president and (Turkish-Cypriot) vice-president, the differences over governance also look bridgeable.

The territorial split between the two communities will be harder. Yet in principle the Turkish-Cypriots are ready, as under the Annan plan, to hand back some 9% of the 38% of Cyprus that they now occupy, including Varosha, a ghost resort town south of Famagusta. A renewed British offer to give up some land from its two military bases will help. There may however be a row about Morphou, which under the Annan plan would have gone to the Greek-Cypriots but has since seen a big influx of Turks from the mainland.

Indeed, some Greek-Cypriots say mainland Turks are a bigger problem than territory. It is common to hear that “we have no problem with Turkish-Cypriots, only with Turks and their army.” Yet the numbers can be exaggerated. Mete Hatay, who works on demographic issues at PRIO, a think-tank in Nicosia, says there are some 50,000 “citizens” of mainland Turkish origin in the north (plus 35,000 troops and a transient population of 100,000). He reckons there are 140,000 Turkish-Cypriots left, comprising 17.5% of the population, close to their 18.6% in 1960.

The two biggest sticking-points in the negotiations are security and property. Mr Christofias insists that he cannot accept a deal that preserves Turkey’s role as a guarantor power and keeps many Turkish troops on the island, since that would be a “Damocles sword hanging over us”. Like all Greek-Cypriots, he distrusts the Turkish army. He hints that a Cyprus deal may fall victim to the power struggle between Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his generals. For his part, Mr Talat is adamant that, after their experience of the 1960s, Turkish-Cypriots cannot forgo some protection from Turkey.

Men of property: … (full text).

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