The Cyprus conundrum in Turkey-EU relations

The Cyprus conundrum in Turkey-EU relations

It would be political shortsightedness not to see that a serious decline in Turkey’s relations with Europe is in the making. At this stage, resorting to blame games does not help: Turkey is hardly satisfied with the approach pursued by the EU vis-a-vis Turkey over the last 10 years, while Turkey’s performance in complying with EU standards has not been convincing either. So culpability is mutual.

Cyprus started to brew into a problem in 1963, the year when Turkey signed the Ankara Treaty to become an associate member of the “Common Market,” namely today’s European Union. It would therefore be wrong to suggest that these two files are mutually exclusive.

Turkey’s intervention in 1974 as a guarantor to prevent the island’s annexation to Greece under the pretext of “Enosis” was meant to protect the rights of Turkish Cypriots living on the island. Turkey’s application for full EU membership, however, comes much later in history. It is therefore also important to underline that however these two files seem to be related, they have only become so because of the course of events in history.

The Cyprus issue became a major obstacle in Turkey’s relations with the EU after the reunification referendum on the island failed to bring about a positive outcome in 2004. With the admission of South Cyprus into the EU as a member, an unresolved problem between Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south transformed into a problem between Turkey and the EU.

Turkey started its accession negotiations with the EU in 2005. South Cyprus - legally recognized as the Republic of Cyprus by the EU because of its membership of the Union, but short of representing the northern part of the island where Turkish Cypriots live - directly or indirectly blocked any progress in those negotiations.

As long as Turkey’s bid for full membership continues, Southern Cyprus as an EU member will continue with this blockage. There is hardly any motivation for them to resolve the Cyprus problem. They assume that it is exactly the opposite for Turkish Cypriots and Ankara, with the latter ready to make concessions if it still aspires to join the EU. It is necessary, therefore, to break this correlation.

The EU is looking for a new way forward in the aftermath of Brexit. Last week, the leaders of the EU at the summit in Rome underlined the importance of a “multi-speed” Europe.

First, the union will take the necessary steps to avoid the contagion effect of the Brexit divorce to other members. Second, Brexit will inevitably develop a new model not only for separation from the union but also for the relationship between the EU and outside partners. It may be in the form of a privileged partnership in a variety of models, starting from the customs union to enhanced free trade deals.

Turkey has a unique relationship with the EU as it already has a customs union, despite the fact that it is not a full member. Yet neither Ankara nor Brussels has been capable of taking full advantage of this peculiar relationship. There is therefore an understanding to re-negotiate its terms and references with a view to enhancing the customs union. This process will proceed in parallel with the EU’s negotiations with the U.K. for Brexit.

Turkey’s full membership of the European Union has long been losing its chances of realization. This is because the union is tending to deepen its integration within, rather than widen its enlargement to bring in new members. This creates further frustration in Turkey and raises questions on whether it is wise to continue the accession negotiations or not. What a mistake!

Accession negotiations keep Turkey and the EU engaged. It is important to keep this interaction going, no matter how discouraging a process it may appear to be, as Turkey’s European anchor is a reassurance for its democratization. Any interruption would cause the EU and Turkey to drift so far apart that it would be almost impossible for them to come closer again.

Brexit, in that sense, poses an important opportunity both for Turkey and the EU to redefine their future relationship, inspired by the new mechanisms it may produce. Such a flexible and open-ended vision for the future of EU-Turkey relationship will also delink the process from the Cyprus problem.

This will also lead to a new understanding in the approach of the Cypriots to resolve their problem bilaterally, independent of illusive conclusions that its resolution will open the way to Turkey’s full membership of the EU. Under the current circumstances, Cyprus would never become a game changer and would continue to be a spoiler.