Two Countries and One Continent’s Future

Henri J. Barkey and Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

December 2, 2002

On Dec. 12 and 13 in Copenhagen, leaders of the European Union are set to announce the historic enlargement of the union, welcoming 10 central and eastern European members. Coming in the wake of NATO’s decision to expand its own membership to the new democracies of the East, the European Union announcement will be rightly seen as a momentous further step toward the consolidation of European stability, democracy and peace.

As Europeans bring some 75 million new members into their club, however, the celebration risks being undermined by the status of one country where fewer than one million of them live—the divided island of Cyprus. For the past year, European Union leaders have made it clear that even if the Greek and Turkish communities on the island failed to reach a political settlement to their 28-year-old division, Cyprus would accede to the union anyway. Since the European Union recognizes only one Cyprus, this would technically mean entry of the entire island, including the Turkish-Cypriot inhabited north. But because the union would have no means of applying its laws in the Turkish area ? currently protected by some 30,000 Turkish troops—as a practical matter admission will mean that only the already much richer Greek Cypriots would join the union, with the Turkish Cypriots condemned to further political and economic isolation. It would also mean incorporating the Greco-Turkish dispute, and the militarized border dividing Cyprus, into the European Union.

Cyprus’ entering the union without a settlement between the Greek and Turkish communities would be considered by the Turks to be a slap in the face. It would be seen as an insulting rejoinder to their recent election of a moderate Islamic government—one that has made a priority of better relations with Europe and pledged far-reaching political reform, in part to bolster the case for Turkey’s own membership in the European Union. Finally, it would send a terrible message to the Islamic world, which is watching with great interest how the new government in Ankara is received internationally.

But any thoughts that the whole problem could be avoided by dropping Cyprus from the accession list are unrealistic: Greece has vowed to retaliate by blocking the accession of the other nine candidates, creating a different sort of disaster for Europe. This threat from Greece would almost certainly be carried out.

Still, this crisis can be averted, and while the United States does not have a formal seat at the table, its influence with all the main parties could prove decisive.

The first step would be a political deal on Cyprus, the prospects for which now seem better than they have for decades. Last month, Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations put forward a comprehensive, 128-page plan for a new Cypriot federation. The proposal gives the Greek Cypriots the unified Cyprus they demand, recognition of a right to return to their lost homes in the north and the return of territory lost in 1974 when the island was violently divided. But to reassure the Turkish side that Turkish Cypriots would never again be dominated by the majority Greeks, the plan includes layers of protection: equal status within the federation; the maintenance of Turkish troops on the island; a rotating presidency; the ability to block sensitive legislation; and, by giving priority to compensation for lost property (rather than restitution) and allowing each community to limit migration to the other’s territory, reassurance that northern Cyprus will remain largely Turkish.

The Greek Cypriot leadership has accepted the plan in principle, but the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, is dragging his feet, against the apparent wishes of much of the Turkish Cypriot population. The Bush administration should make it clear to Ankara that the current Cyprus proposal is the best they are ever likely to see and that the opportunity to accept it should not be missed. Whereas the previous Turkish prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, who had ordered the intervention in Cyprus in 1974, was dead set against compromise, the new Turkish government may well be more receptive, not least because of its own desire to bring Turkey into the European Union. The United Nations’ plan to allow a Turkish military presence on the island should reassure the powerful military’s general staff that Turkey’s strategic interests would not be harmed by a deal.

Ultimately, all these questions are linked to that of Turkey’s own membership in the European Union. After finally being accepted as a candidate in late 1999, Turkey has worked hard to meet the union’s criteria for membership, most notably with the passage of a major domestic reform package last August that abolished the death penalty, expanded human and minority rights, and allowed for the teaching and broadcasting of the Kurdish language. Still, the union remains reluctant about Turkey, with many Europeans arguing that the reforms, while highly positive, do not go far enough and that the union cannot be expected to absorb nearly 70 million relatively low-income citizens just after allowing in 75 million others in this round.

A deal that allows entry to Cyprus, however, would make it hard for the European Union to reject Turkey. Indeed, the broad condemnation in Europe of the comments of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, that Turkish entry would mean “the end of the European Union” (even the Greek leadership distanced itself from his statement) suggests that many Europeans understand the importance of keeping Turkey’s membership aspirations alive and its reform process on track.

The next two weeks offer the greatest opportunity in decades to finally solve the Cyprus problem and set Turkey firmly on a European path.