Op-Ed

Cyprus and the NATO-EU Divide

Ömer Taşpınar

There are several reasons frozen conflicts remain frozen. Sometimes it is because the world doesn’t pay much attention to the conflict at hand. Often, the stakes are not very high in terms of global implications. Most of the time the alternative to the current impasse is worse.

There is therefore vested interest on both sides of the conflict to keep things as they are. Deadlock ensues. Of all the frozen conflicts in the world, Cyprus may be the one which defies the logic of “stalemate” the most. The global implications of a solution in Cyprus will be of utmost importance. Just think about two issues with major ramifications: Turkey-EU relations and NATO-EU divisions. Both have Cyprus as their common denominator.

Not surprisingly, the Turkish press is more familiar with the former. Cyprus has become the main reason why most of the chapters dealing with foreign policy in Turkey-EU negotiations are blocked. The Republic of Cyprus became a member of the EU in 2005 and it now enjoys veto power over Brussels’ accession talks with Ankara. Many within the organization admit it was a historic mistake to admit divided Cyprus to the union. The timing could not have been worse for several reasons. Perhaps the most important has to do with global dynamics.

In the last decade, Turkey’s EU membership turned into a major test for the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. During the 1990s no one expected that Turkey would make tremendous progress towards EU membership under the leadership of a moderately Islamic government. According to conventional wisdom, Islamists were anti-Western. Yet, this is exactly what happened with the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in late 2002. After a series of ambitious domestic reforms, Turkey began accession talks in 2005. During the 1990s, it was equally hard to predict that Huntington would be proven right about his theory that the future of conflicts would be along religious lines. Yet, this is exactly what happened when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned the “clash of civilizations” theory into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The net result of all this is that the frozen conflict of Cyprus has hijacked one of the most important issues fueling global polarization. As long as the conflict remains frozen, the future of relations between Islam and the West will be at stake.

The second reason Cyprus greatly matters is because of the NATO-EU divide. NATO-EU cooperation is urgent and crucial in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, the Somali coast and Afghanistan. As The New York Times recently pointed out, “Even more worrying for both sides is the lack of any security arrangements that would, for example, allow NATO forces to rescue EU police trainers in Afghanistan if they came under attack.” Once again, the reason for the deadlock is Cyprus.

Using its leverage within NATO, Ankara prevents high-level formal meetings between NATO and the EU’s Political and Security Committee on the grounds that Cyprus does not have any security clearance from NATO. Just as Cyprus has the upper hand in the EU, where Turkey is not a member, Turkey has the upper hand in NATO, where Cyprus is neither a member of the alliance nor of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, a program of bilateral and security cooperation between individual countries and NATO. As a result, NATO and the EU cannot even talk to each other. This is Turkey’s way of reminding the EU that Europe needs to solve the Cyprus problem if it wants to cooperate with NATO and have access to its facilities and capacity.

The stakes involved in the frozen conflict of Cyprus are therefore very high for the international community. No other frozen conflict has the luxury of hijacking the future of relations between the West and Islam or the ability to block much needed security arrangements between the world’s most important military alliance and the most successful supra-national model of regional integration. In that sense, Cyprus defies all the classical norms of a frozen conflict. Although diminishing, there is still some willingness to solve the issue on the Turkish and Greek sides of the island. What may be missing is the crucial absence of international pressure for a solution.