Last week talks for the reunification of Cyprus collapsed, dimming hope for a settlement on the island ethnically divided along Turkish and Greek zones since 1974. Of all the international disputes diplomats like to call “frozen conflicts,” Cyprus is among the oldest, with a buffer zone cutting across its capital and endless rounds of international diplomacy going back for almost half a century.
On Friday, the United Nations secretary general António Guterres announced, “I’m very sorry to tell you that despite the very strong commitment and engagement of all the delegations and different parties … the conference on Cyprus was closed without an agreement being reached.” He did not signal whether a new round of diplomacy would come any time soon – if at all.
In all likelihood, it will be very difficult to go back to the same drawing board – the idea of creating a “bi-zonal, bi-communal federation” with equal citizenship to Turkish and Greek Cypriots and a European Union membership card.
At the 10-day summit in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana, the final deal-breaker was a clash about security arrangements on the island, where Turkey and Greece have been designated for decades as “guarantors” for the two communities.
Roughly 30,000 Turkish troops have been stationed there since Turkey intervened in 1974 to protect Turks following ethnic violence after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Unsurprisingly, the nature of this military presence is strongly contested; it is considered an “occupation” by Greeks and a “peace operation” by Turks.
Last week, negotiations over future arrangements for the withdrawal or otherwise of these troops resulted in a late night shouting match, according to Reuters, with Greek and Greek Cypriot officials accusing Turkey of derailing the talks by insisting on keeping troops, albeit in reduced numbers. Turks said they had showed plenty of flexibility, and that abolishing their role as protectors of Turkish Cypriots was out of the question.
“Close, but not close enough,” lamented UN special envoy Espen Barth Eide, who has led months of intense diplomacy for reunification.
The result is all the more disappointing because, for a brief moment, the UN-brokered negotiations had looked promising, with Western diplomats talking about a “window of opportunity” to reach a historic settlement.
Three factors made this latest round more favorable. Firstly, both Nicos Anastasiades, elected president of Cyprus in 2013, and Mustafa Akinci, elected president of the breakaway Turkish republic in 2015, both favoured reunification. Secondly, after the success of Turkey’s migration deal with Brussels, Ankara saw in a Cyprus deal the possibility to re-energise Turkey’s EU bid. And thirdly, the discovery of new gas fields off Cyprus, with the potential for lucrative Turkish-Cypriot-Israeli energy partnerships, created an added impetus for all sides.
Sure enough, in direct talks last year, the two leaders agreed on many of the details of a final settlement, including a rotating presidency. But in the end it was the impasse on long-term security arrangements – the part that involves mainland Turkey and Greece – that proved insurmountable.
Cyprus, of course, is not just about Cyprus – it is critical to Turkey’s future relations with Europe. In 2004, Cyprus entered the European club, thereby making the decades long conflict an internal EU matter. That same year, current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (then the prime minister) enthusiastically backed a UN-sponsored referendum, with the hope that a Cyprus settlement would pave the way for Turkey’s accession talks with the European Union.
But, along the way, Ankara has turned inward-looking and authoritarian, while Europeans have hidden behind the Cyprus dispute to stall Turkey’s accession. Between 2004 and 2017, Ankara was only able to open 16 out of 35 accession chapters, with many blocked because of the Cyprus issue.
Today, with Turkey’s relations with Europe so tepid, it is difficult to envision a return to the former zeal for reunification. “We will continue efforts for a settlement within different parameters,” Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wrote on Twitter, suggesting that Turkey may be abandoning efforts to create a unitary state. Feeling increasingly distant from the West and shunned by the EU, Ankara no longer feels motivated to push for a united Cyprus.
The failure of talks leaves Turkey’s formal accession process with the EU hanging by a thread. Already the European Parliament has twice voted to suspend Turkey’s accession negotiations on human rights grounds, and, without a Cyprus deal, it will be tougher to get the parliament’s approval on the proposed modernisation of Turkey’s customs union agreement with Europe. “Since Cyprus is already a member state, there will inevitably be more criticism and the language on occupation from the EU institutions” said a senior European diplomat.
Going back to square one means Cyprus lobbying Brussels for a firm position on the removal of Turkish troops and Ankara seeking to ease the isolation of Turkish Cypriots by striving for a Taiwan-like status (trade but no recognition) for the breakaway republic. Formal annexation of the island by Turkey is unlikely, but tensions are likely to rise later this summer when several energy companies who have signed deals with the Cypriot government start drilling. This is something Ankara has warned against, arguing that hydrocarbons belong to both communities.
In a few weeks, UN negotiator Eide will brief the U.S. Security Council on whether there is any point in continuing talks. Many international observers note that keeping large numbers of UN peacekeepers on a buffer zone on the island will not be tenable in the long run and that the two sides would at least have to agree to the physical partitioning of the island.
Sadly, in the end, that may be all that they can agree on.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.