The countdown has begun

In a year’s time, the Republic of Cyprus will take over the rotating presidency of the EU. Between now and then, the Turkish Cypriots and the Turkish government want to obtain an agreement on the division of the island. If not they will suspend talks with Europe.

Published on 27 July 2011 at 15:28
UN peacekeepers patrol the Green Line separating the two parts of Cyrpus, in Nicosia, October 2009

Álvaro de Soto, a former special adviser on Cyprus to the UN Secretary General, has likened the Cyprus problem to a padlock that has to be opened by four keys, all of which have to be turned at the same time.

Now Europe’s longest standing conflict, the dispute which began in 1974, is fast approaching a resolution. Three of the keys, Greece, Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) have agreed that negotiations on reunification must achieve results before October.

However, further progress will be necessary if the Greek Cypriot position is to be reconciled with the interests of the European Union.

In the meantime, Turkish Cypriots are convinced that the EU is using the issue of the reunification of Cyprus as a pretext to block negotiations on Turkish accession. Earlier this month, Ankara adopted a harder line on the issue. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to boycott the EU if Cyprus is still divided when it takes over the rotating presidency in July 2012.

Turkey cannot accept that Cyprus continues to pose a problem in negotiations with the EU. In particular, Davutoğlu has insisted that there is “no ethical ground or justification” for the international isolation of the North.

Greek Cypriots rejected a plan to reunite the island in a referendum

Locked into a struggle that is perhaps as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for 37 years both sides of the island have been fenced off and guarded by the Greek and Turkish armies. Sandwiched in between them are the forces deployed by the United Nations — and the island is also home to two British military bases.

Although Greece and Turkey have both indicated that they are not opposed to reunification, and in a context in which the UN has threatened to withdraw its forces deployed at a cost of more than 57 million dollars (40 millions euros) per year, negotiations have remained in deadlock.

In 2004, when the island had an opportunity to join the EU, the Greek Cypriots rejected a plan for reunification in a referendum. Since then, in spite of pledges made by the EU, the Turkish part of the island continues to be subject to an embargo — only aircraft from Turkey are able to land there — while its economy is kept alive by an annual 290 million euros of aid from Ankara.

The stand-off has been sustained by the failure to reach agreement on the type of government (the formula proposed by the UN was for two distinct regional governments under a single federal authority), the division of territory, and the restitution of property lost by refugees in the aftermath of 1974.

Direct trade with the North is illegal

Any agreement will have to be ratified by referendums on both sides, at a time when Greek Cypriots appear less and less like to vote “yes” to unification. Time has worked to undermine the cause of reunification, while a growing number of young Cypriots no longer share their parents’ nostalgia for lands that were lost before the division of the island.

Following the Turkish military intervention in 1974 (which was designed to prevent the Greek military junta from annexing the country) and in the wake of carnage on both sides, the island was divided in two and a wall was built to separate the two different communities in the capital Nicosia (or Lefkoşa in Turkish). In accordance with a UN sanctioned population exchange agreement, Turkish Cypriots living in the South were forced to leave their homes and move to the North, while Greek Cyriots resident in the North were obliged to to move south of the border. The issue of the property they were forced to leave behind remains one of the greatest obstacles to reunification.

Is there a “plan B”? Official recognition by the UN could be a solution. “We want to be recognized by the international community. If the Greek Cypriots persist in their intransigence, we will have to take further steps,” points out TRNC Foreign Minister Hüseyin Özgürgün, who explains that he has already sent envoys to Sweden, Norway and Brussels.

Speaking to Adevărul, his counterpart in the Republic of Cyprus, Markos Kyprianou, insists that the reunification of the island and the formation of a federal state is the best solution. “Direct trade with the North is illegal under EU regulations. The EU should not decide on national issues in Cyprus without obtaining agreement from both sides. I do not think that the member states want to set such a precedent within the European Union.”

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