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Europe’s Cypriot Problem

Failure to Negotiate in Good Faith May Cause Turkey to Turn Away

SOURCE: AP/Adem Altan

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and his counterpart Irsen Kucuk of Northern Cyprus.

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With Brussels providing €219 billion ($314 billion) in financial life-support for the Greeks and likely more to come (and perhaps soon the Greek Cypriots, who face their own budget deficit crisis), French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had the leverage not only to force the Greek government into austerity politics but also to induce a much more open-minded posture on the Greek side. But it seems France and Germany continue to use Greece to avoid a serious debate about the future of the European Union and Turkey. 

As a result, a year from now, Turkey’s relationship with Europe could be in tatters due to the still festering conflict over the divided island of Cyprus. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is hoping to achieve a long-term resolution by October, setting that month as his deadline for a breakthrough. But success is highly unlikely, and Turkey upped the ante by announcing that if Cyprus’s diplomatic status is not resolved when Cyprus assumes the EU’s rotating presidency in July 2012, then Turkey’s relations with the European Union will be frozen for the ensuing six months.

By raising the stakes, the Turkish government has elevated tiny Cyprus into a big headache for the powers in the region. And it is far from clear if the pledges and ultimatums will actually lead to a settlement. Here’s why. The ethnic Greek southern two-thirds of Cyprus has held up European Union membership for Turkey because of a political dispute with the northern one-third of the island ruled by its ethnic Turk population. This standoff is one of the key issues (though by no means the only one) contributing to the stalemate regarding Turkish membership―a step seen as vital by the United States for many years.

The conflict in Cyprus has plagued the Europeans and the trans-Atlantic NATO alliance—Turkey boasts the second-largest armed forces in NATO after the United States—ever since the island’s Greek and Turkish communities violently parted ways in 1963. Disputes over the small landmass with a little more than a million people led to military confrontation between NATO-allies Turkey and Greece in 1974, and although Cyprus is no longer a flashpoint of armed conflict, it continues to bar efforts toward NATO-EU coordination.

And as always in Europe, history makes things difficult. Cyprus gained membership to the European Union in a breathtaking act of extortion. Greece, despite its reliance on hefty subsidies from more affluent European countries, managed to successfully threaten to veto important Eastern European applicants if Cyprus wasn’t included in the European club. After securing membership in 2004, Cyprus immediately used its newly gained veto power—a privilege of every EU country—to block proposals that would have improved the Union’s economic ties with the Turkish-section of the island.

Since then, Cyprus has liberally employed its capacity to block Turkey’s accession into the EU in order to strengthen its bargaining position vis-à-vis the Turkish-side of the Cyprus dispute. Ankara has responded by using its NATO-membership to block deeper NATO-EU defense cooperation. In effect, Greek and Greek Cypriot willingness to take full advantage of their veto power has led to a bizarre state-of-affairs in which the fate of NATO-EU relations as well as Europe’s strategic relationship with Turkey are now at the mercy of an island with fewer inhabitants than Naples or Cologne.

And it didn’t have to be this way. In 2004, a political solution spearheaded by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was brought to referendum in both sections of Cyprus. Based on years of negotiation between the two sides, the Annan Plan established a structure of government that would have granted wide autonomy to both communities within the scope of a single sovereign state. It also offered compromises on the dicey issue of property rights and population.

Then came the voting. Backed by Turkey, the Annan plan passed by a large margin in the ethnic Turkish zone. But after Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos announced his opposition to the plan, the Greek Cypriot population voted it down. The EU then deepened the divide by responding to the Annan plan’s failure by giving the Greek Cypriots the gift of a lifetime—EU-membership and all the bargaining power that comes with it.

Two years ago, negotiations fell apart again. Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias at first seemed to be moving closer to a power-sharing agreement, but in the end a few sticking-points caused negotiations to stall. When the Turkish Cypriots ousted President Talat in favor of hardliner Dervis Eroglu in 2010, hopes for a grand settlement were shelved for good. At this stage, rather than constructing an intricate package deal, most proposals focus on getting the ball rolling with incremental unilateral concessions on the part of both sides.

As seems to be custom in Europe, some suggest that Turkey make the first step by unilaterally lifting its two-decade old embargo on goods originating from Greek Cyprus. And indeed, opening Turkey’s ports to Greek Cypriots would bring much needed economic benefit to the island and demonstrate Turkish goodwill to the EU and the Greeks. But unless Turkish leaders are feeling especially generous, they have little domestic political incentive to give up this position.

Even though such a step would undermine Cyprus’s justification for blocking Turkey’s bid for EU membership, the Turkish government has no reason to believe that this would be a game changer. And they are right.

Ultimately, Turkish accession is blocked due to political opposition emanating from France and Germany. The underlying reason: Fear of unfettered emigration of Turkish workers throughout the EU, which does not have internal borders for the movement of labor. And with Brussels providing €219 billion ($314 billion) in financial life-support for the Greeks (and perhaps soon the Greek Cypriots, who face their own budget deficit crisis), French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had the leverage not only to force the Greek government into austerity politics but also to induce a much more open-minded posture on the Greek side.

But Turkey is the future of Europe. Its median age is only 28 (compared to 45 in Germany or 40 in Spain), and between 2002 and 2010 the country’s economy grew by over 200 percent with an average annual growth in gross domestic product of 5 percent. Add to this Ankara’s increasingly energetic foreign policy bridging the divide between the social democracies of Europe and the mostly authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and it’s easy to see that Europe’s future is closely tied to Turkey.

But instead of implementing a robust Cyprus strategy, the EU is acting out the lead in a classical tragedy―doomed by the Achilles-heel of its consensus driven institutions. From the very start of their EU memberships, Greece and Cyprus excelled at using the EU system to bend the continent to their own ends. Now payday has arrived and yet the EU shows no sign of changing these counterproductive policies. Instead, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has chosen to lay the blame largely with Turkey as Cyprus waits to receive a brand new windfall next year when it assumes the rotating EU presidency.

This is folly of historic proportions.

Morton Abramowitz is a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at American Progress where his work focuses on climate migration and security and transatlantic foreign policy including Turkey and Tyler Evans is an intern with the National Security team.

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