Win some, lose more

The surest means of achieving success is to set the bar so low that you do not even have to jump – on the condition that the public does not spot the trick. Though this trick does not suit responsible political leaders, they not infrequently resort to it, either to justify their own inadequacies or conceal their own failures. Unfortunately, the European Council’s decision on Friday was a classic example. The awkward attempt to justify the unjustifiable is pitiful. The final phrase in the controversial paragraph of the council’s conclusions has already been subject to interpretations that question Turkey’s obligation to sign the protocol for a customs union with Cyprus in order to start access negotiation talks on October 3, 2005. But even if we sidestep such interpretations and accept Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s assertion, the political balance sheet is disappointing. A promise recorded Had Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initialed the protocol, he would have made a concession, compared to his country’s policies so far. It would not have been recognition but it would have been a concession. His spoken statement, which is included in the conclusions, records a promise that, even if it were not in doubt, has yet to be implemented. The presence of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the summit may well have to do with the fact that his plan will come up for discussion again in 2005. Cypriot Prime Minister Tassos Papadopoulos, who says he accepts the plan as the basis for a solution, will be forced to enter a restrictive procedure that shall be more in the nature of an ultimatum than a negotiation, as an express solution will be sought. This time, if the Greek Cypriots give in and accept the plan (probably in a slightly revised form), Turkey will have no difficulty signing the customs union protocol and recognizing a United Cypriot republic. If the Greek Cypriots reject it, Turkey, with the help of the British presidency, will in all likelihood exploit the climate to try and dodge its doubtful promise. If neither of the above occurs and Ankara signs the protocol, the price it pays will be insignificant compared with the benefits it gains. Erdogan is correct when he declares that a customs union with Cyprus is not tantamount to recognition. The Dutch EU president and other leaders said the same. Only the Greek premier offered an alternative interpretation, which was no more than a fig leaf. Ankara is not obliged to establish diplomatic relations with the rightful Cypriot government nor to lift its recognition of the breakaway state in the north of Cyprus. A customs union agreement alone does not bring any worthwhile benefit to Nicosia. The summit’s conclusions did not completely favor Turkey’s ambitious demands but they met the bulk of them. Turkey attained its main goal, which was to begin the accession process. There are formulas that may undermine the prospect of full accession but that was unavoidable. On the Aegean and Cyprus fronts, Turkey made no worthwhile exchange. Apologists for the outcome argue that Greece lost nothing and in fact gained something. This is true but only one side of the coin. For years Athens and Nicosia have constructed theories about playing the European card to achieve nationally acceptable solutions on these two fronts. Though a serious political advantage, the card was not played skillfully enough to produce worthwhile benefit. The point that touches on Greek-Turkish relations is no more than a variation on the relevant decision in Helsinki, without a timetable. On the other front, the initial goal of recognition degenerated into what was named as normalization of Cypriot-Turkish relations, while the outcome was the meager promise of a customs union. Our partners tried to impose their own terms on Ankara, which was why most of them did not want to burden the EU-Turkish negotiations with issues of relevance to Greek interests. And we played their game. Political paradox If more imagination had been deployed, Nicosia needn’t have used a single gram of its political capital to make the Turkish side sign the protocol. The non-recognition of Cyprus is a political paradox, but our partners were able to bypass it with a stiff dose of hypocrisy. The same does not apply to the the expansion of the customs union agreement. This is a tacit promise by Ankara to the EU. It would have been very interesting had Papadopoulos avoided asking for the protocol to be signed and demanded recognition alone. That would have forced the European Council to impose the expansion of the customs union with Cyprus onto Turkey, because otherwise it would have been transgressing the basic rules of the EU. It would be wrong and unjust to underestimate the suffocating pressure that was brought to bear on Nicosia and Athens. Due precisely to that pressure, it was genuinely difficult to impose strict terms on Turkey. In other words, the «yes» meant a lot to Turkey, but could not be sold at a high price. However, there was no good reason to give it away for free, or at the least at a symbolic price.