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Friday, July 15, 2011

Cyprus threats, possibilities

In the midst of all the warranted pessimism about the prospect of Turkish EU membership (see my posts one and two on the state of play for an account of the main hurdles right now), there are a few interesting things happening. Most of them are a mixture of good and bad things but there are some bright spots, from the Turkish point of view.

Most significantly, the Cyprus issue appears to be coming to a head. This for two reasons: First of all, the EU has, as most of you know, a rotating presidency where each member state is saddled with the (significant and quite challenging) task of heading the work of the European Council for six months. The Republic of Cyprus (or the Greek, southern part of the island) is an EU member and its turn is for the first time coming up in a year from now (July 2012).

To Turkey and Turkish Cyprus, this represents a serious threat and it may put added pressure on them to  achieve a solution to the long-lasting conflict, which has been a major road-block on Turkey's path toward EU membership. It seems the Turkish Cypriot president, Derviş Eroğlu feels the pressure: After a meeting with EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule yesterday, he told reporters  that
If the Greek Cypriot administration assumes the rotating helm of the EU as planned and before we could reach any agreement, [the] window of opportunity for a solution will close.
That would mean we would have lost 2012. The Greek Cypriots are set to vote in presidential elections in 2013, which means that that would be a lost year, too. The Turkish Cypriots cannot wait for years to get a settlement. In the end, patience has its limits.
And top Turkish officials likewise sense the urgency. Foreign minister Davutoğlu and EU minister Bağış have both recently threatened that Turkey-EU relations may experience a "freeze" if there is no solution to the Cyprus conflict come July of next year. And therefore, they are pushing for a rapid settlement. Davutoğlu cited in EurActiv:
"We hope to find a solution to the Cyprus problem by the end of the year, and hold a referendum in the early months of next year so that Cyprus can take on the presidency of the EU as a new state that represents the whole island," Davutoğlu said during a visit to the Turkish Cypriot enclave in the north of the island.
A problem in this context is that all the pressure would seem to be on Turkey and Turkish Cyprus, since the Republic of Cyprus would not really be harmed by assuming the EU Presidency even in the absence of a resolution to the conflict. The result is the same one-sided pressure that the EU applied in 2004, in a failed attempt to push Turkish Cypriots to accept a peace plan that the Greek Cypriots subsequently rejected.

But here is where the second reason that there seems to be some movement on the issue may come in: UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, appears to be ready to remove UN blue helmets from the island unless there is movement soon. Here's former Dutch MEP, Joost Lagendijk:
On Cyprus, we have seen a new wave of enthusiasm over the last couple of days, even among skeptics who thought that the Cyprus problem would never be solved. This optimism is based on the talks that took place in Geneva last week in which United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented a plan for the completion of the talks between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots in October of this year. Many had given up hope that these negotiations would produce anything close to a solution. The UN chief has now made clear that he is not willing to accept failure or an endless dragging on.
Removing the UN troops that patrol the norther-southern border would would, in Lagendijk's words, "make the Greek Cypriots feel extremely uncomfortable." So there may be just the kind of pressure on both parties that is needed for movement towards a resolution to the conflict to be within the realm of the thinkable.

Another protracted conflict that stands in the way of Turkish EU accession is of course the Kurdish issue, and here there is both recent violence and hints of progress. The NYT reports today of a PKK attack yesterday, that left 13 Turkish soldiers dead, and of failed talks to end the parliamentary boycott by Kurdish MPs.

But, as The Economist notes,
secret talks between the government and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned Kurdish PKK leader, continue despite Mr Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish tone during the campaign.
And apparently,
Mr Ocalan has suggested that a deal to bring an end to the PKK’s 27 years of insurgency might be within reach. 
Now, I teach courses ethnic conflict and wouldn't suggest that a lasting and comprehensive solution to a conflict as intractable as the Kurdish rebellion is an easy feat or that a settlement that is centrally negotiated with an imprisoned rebel leader is all that it would take. But it would certainly be a major coup for the Turkish government and a key ingredient in a lasting resolution of the conflict.

So, in the midst of all the pessimism, one could - I'm not saying that it is likely, just possible - one could imagine a scenario in which both of the two dragged-out and highly debilitating conflicts that have been used as key arguments against Turkish EU accession by innumerable EU politicians, are partially resolved within a year. This would certainly put the ball in the EU's court.

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