Last chance on Cyprus

At their summit today and tomorrow, EU leaders may be incited by Cyprus to punish Turkey for not opening its harbors and airports to Greek-Cypriot traffic. They should resist and instead pledge support for negotiations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which are now entering a crucial phase. Nicosia’s stand is doubly ironic. It pledges full commitment to the reunification talks, yet is trying to penalize Turkey, a key partner in any settlement. Greek Cypriots say they want to see Turkey in the EU, yet they are pushing it away. The timing is also wrong. Europe, Turkey and Cyprus face a new «last chance» to reunify the 1.1 million inhabitants of the island – 80 percent Greek Cypriot, 20 percent Turkish Cypriot. Unfortunately, the downward road – from a Greek-Cypriot takeover in 1963, a Greece-backed coup in 1974 and the subsequent Turkish invasion – is paved with lost chances. The most recent chance was lost when the EU accepted as a member a country run only by Greek Cypriots. Its leader and 76 percent of Greek Cypriots had voted against the 2004 settlement, including a Turkish withdrawal, that had been backed by the EU, UN, USA, Turkey and 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots. After that, Greek Cypriots blocked half of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations; right-wing leaders from major EU states turned against Turkey’s European ambitions and a demoralized Turkey slowed its EU harmonization process to a crawl. In February 2008, the Greek Cypriots elected a new, pro-compromise leader, Dimitris Christo-fias. A promising new period of talks began with the equally progressive Turkish-Cypriot leader, Mehmet Ali Talat. However, despite some success, the two old friends have not yet managed to rescue the situation. In the absence of a real deal, polls suggest Talat will lose his seat to a nationalist hardliner in elections in April. If this happens, the underlying animosity stored up since 2004 could unravel the situation fast and the de facto partition will become permanent. The EU will lose any prospect of EU-NATO cooperation and the positive impact that smooth EU-Turkey relations have had in its Middle Eastern backyard. Greece’s territorial conflicts with Turkey may unfreeze. Turkey will see the prosperity linked to its last decade’s EU integration efforts evaporate, will face billions of euros of European lawsuits over occupied Greek-Cypriot property and will fail to win recognition of a Turkish-Cypriot state. On Cyprus, Greek Cypriots will suffer Turkish troops in the occupied north indefinitely, forfeit chances for restitution of occupied property and become a partial ghetto on the far eastern margin of Europe. Turkish Cypriots, already squeezed by migrants from Turkey, and today barely half of the population of the north, will see living standards fall and their community scatter as full-scale integration with Turkey ensues. Momentum in the old virtuous circle between the EU, Turkey and Cyprus can be rebuilt. The new German government has dropped the idea of a second-class «privileged partnership» for Turkey it had been canvassing as a substitute for the long-promised goal of membership. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s opposition to Turkey’s membership has brought new supporters of Turkey out into the open. Greek Cypriots should send positive signals and find a way of accepting the Turkish offer of direct talks in the same room as the Turkish Cypriots, Greece and the UN. Turkey should act big and reach out to the Greek Cypriots to neutralize their real fears and lack of trust. Ankara should also accelerate its recent new push on convergence with EU norms. This process is not just the best course for both sides. It is also the only path to the reunification of Cyprus – and for this to happen, the next few months really are the last chance. (1) Hugh Pope is Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus project director and author of «Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey.»

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