EU, Turkey and Cyprus: Opportunity Lost?

EU, Turkey and Cyprus: Opportunity Lost?

Once an important reason for Ankara’s compromising position toward Cyprus, the EU nowadays seems to be facing important challenges in pushing Turkey toward a final resolution of the long-standing dispute. 

The Cyprus problem has always been a “cornerstone” of Turkish foreign policy. When Turkey was offered candidature for EU membership status in Helsinki 1999, accession was conditioned on compromising the position toward Cyprus. This caused a spectacular shift of Ankara’s stance and the support of the “Annan Plan,” the UN-proposed blueprint for the reunification of the island. When in 2004 Greek Cypriots rejected the plan, hopes for resolution were disappointed and Cyprus acceded to the EU as a divided country. In this post-Annan era, Turkey has displayed less flexibility on the Cyprus issue due to a variety of reasons that mostly relate to the EU. 

In the aftermath of the Annan Plan, the EU had failed to trigger pro-solution attitudes on both sides of the “Green Line” and welcomed a divided island among its circles. This led to a hardening of Turkish policy toward Cyprus, which was also allowed by the loss of international credibility that the Greek Cypriot side suffered following their rejection of the Annan Plan and the opposite trend of understanding toward the Turkish Cypriots, who favored reunification. 

In addition, the efforts of Greek Cypriots to use their EU membership in order to secure Turkish concessions have somehow led to the exact opposite results: a gradual change of Ankara’s policy toward more intransigent attitudes in the Cyprus dispute. For example, the implementation of the Additional Protocol by Ankara (Turkey’s custom union with EU member states, including Cyprus) is often linked to a Greek Cypriot lift of veto on the strengthening of EU-Turkish Cypriot relations.

Even more importantly, the momentum created in Helsinki has shrunk. In an era where the EU faces several domestic problems (e.g. constitutional and financial crises), the entire enlargement strategy has suffered a blow. But, more specifically, Turkey’s EU aspirations have further been damaged by rising skepticism toward the country’s accession across Europe. In this context, the decreasing importance of Turkey within European integration and calls for a “privileged partnership” instead of full EU membership have provided Ankara with limited incentives to act fast on Cyprus. 

Last but not least, the decreasing appeal of the EU across Turkish society (which directly relates to Brussels’ failure to sustain a credible accession promise) limits the room available to the government for compromises in the Cyprus issue. 

It is, indeed, challenging to foresee whether Ankara will stay as inflexible if and when resolution of the Cyprus problem will become a more realistic prospect toward which all sides of the dispute will need to “show their cards.” Nevertheless, it is certain that the European future of Turkey will continue to be directly linked to the Cyprus dispute. In this regard, the “ticket” of EU accession continues to be an instrument in the hands of Brussels in order to promote flexibility of Turkey. At the same time, the EU should also recognize that, for Turkey to meet accession conditionality, the reward of EU membership should also be very clear. And, on this front, Brussels have still some work to do. 

*Dr. George Kyris is from the department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.