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Home » Cyprus EU Presidency, Focus

The Cyprus Question and Turkey-EU Relations in 2012

Submitted by on 19 Apr 2012 – 12:44

By Mustafa Kutlay, Centre for EU Studies, International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), Ankara

When the formal negotiations began in 2005, many analysts were optimistic about the future of Turkey-EU relations. In one year’s time, however, the pace of negotiations started to lose momentum and since 2006, the process has remained at low ebb because it has slacked to a point where it exists in name but without much substance, seemingly due to the Cyprus question. In 2006, the European Council froze eight chapters and announced that it would not close the rest until Turkey opens its sea and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic.

Turkey, on the other hand, argued that it would not open its ports since the EU did not comply with its promises to lift the bans against the Turkish Cypriot community after the Annan referendum. In the Annan referendum, 65 percent of the Turkish side supported the unification of the island, whereas the Greek Cypriots unequivocally rejected unification with 75 percent of the total vote. What is worse, in the following period, France blocked five chapters with concerns that opening them “may pave the way for Turkey’s membership.” The Greek Cypriots, who blocked a further six chapters, presented a final obstacle to Turkey. This means a de facto stalemate in the negotiation process because there are just three chapters remaining opened, which are in fact the most burdensome ones.

What will happen after mid-2012?

Turkey-EU relations are undergoing a severe test and the next phase will begin in the second half of 2012, when the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) is due to assume the rotating presidency of the EU. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared at the outset that “the relations with the EU will freeze” if the RoC takes over the EU’s rotating presidency without a settlement in the Cyprus question. However, there is no serious reason to believe that there will be a solution in the near horizon mainly due to three reasons. First, the divergence in the mentality of the leaders of the island resembles the difference between day and night. Ceteris paribus, there is no motivation for the parties, especially the Greek side, to change their positions and move forward. Second, there is not enough international pressure to solve the problem. During the preparation of the Annan Plan, the UN, EU, and US were actively supporting a settlement in the island. In the existing situation, however, none of these actors are willing to take an active role to convince the parties. In this context, the Turkish decision-makers ask the following question: Why would the Greek Cypriots say “yes” in the absence of international pressure given that they did reject the Annan Plan, which was eagerly supported by international actors? This question leads us to the third reason, which I believe, is a severe trust problem. This point is further exacerbated with the recent oil drilling crisis.

The oil drilling crisis and trust problem

When the Greek Cypriots unilaterally started to prospect for energy sources in the eastern Mediterranean, that sea basin, which had been free of tensions for a good while, once more became the center of a power struggle. The latest move by the Greek Cypriots is interpreted by the Turkish side as a new obstacle in the way of a Cyprus settlement and has also begun to affect the basic paradigm of Turkish foreign policy. The tension over drilling in the eastern Mediterranean has created the conditions for taking down old but not obsolete dossiers from their dusty shelves and placing them back on the table.

The Turkish side understood once more that for as long as the Cyprus problem is unresolved, Turkey is going to face unexpected problems. In essence, it is the Cyprus problem which lies at the bottom of the latest tensions because it is the Greek Cypriot sector which is recognized as a sovereign state by the international community, and it has also obtained EU membership. Thus in the seabed drilling crisis, the RoC claims it is using its sovereign rights. The EU, Russia, and the UK have developed a common position regarding petroleum prospecting in the eastern Mediterranean, stating that it is the right of the RoC. The crux of the Cyprus problem becomes apparent here. The Turkish side asks the following question: If the RoC is the legal representative of the island and represents Turkish Cypriots as well, why are the parties negotiating? What is the raison d’être of the negotiations? This ontological problem and the low level of trust between the parties make a solution proposal extremely difficult, if not impossible.

In conclusion, the problems in Turkey-EU relations are multifaceted, the Cyprus question being just one of them despite its importance. The burden lies on the shoulders of both sides. Therefore, for possible progress in Turkey-EU relations, the parties should stop playing a “blame game” and try to come up with creative policy proposals based on just, fair, and reciprocal principles.