Cyrpus: Storms in the Med blow towards Europe

After years - or even decades - during which the basic elements of the Gre e k -Turkish conflict barely changed, a series of domestic political, economic, and strategic factors are coming together to inject a new - and potentially dangerous - dynamic into eastern Mediterranean geopolitics.

The World Today Updated 7 December 2018 Published 1 February 1998 7 minute READ

In Greece, since January 1996 a refreshingly moderate Socialist administration under Prime Minister Costas Simitis, has begun to break with the inflationary and nationalistic practices of recent governments, and Athens’ relations with its European Union (EU) partners have significantly improved.

Turkish domestic politics, on the other hand, have been moving in the opposite direction: the Republic’s first Islamist government took office in June 1996, worrying Turkey’s Western allies, harming prospects for greater integration with Europe, and making foreign investors nervous.

Its replacement by ‘virtual coup’ in June 1997, when the Turkish military insisted that Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, step down, only led to the formation of another unstable coalition, widespread criticism of the functioning of Turkish democr a c y, and questions about how domestic political instability will affect Turkey’s foreign policy and relations with its neighbours. The competition among Turkish political parties vying for nationalistic support, after all, has been one of the reasons for Turkey’s hardline in its periodic clashes with Greece.

The regional situation is also changing in important ways. NATO ’s planned enlarg ement to Central Europe has raised fears in Turkey that the Alliance is mistakenly focusing to the north rather than to the southeast. Turkish leaders have suggested that their parliament could veto the ratification of enlarg ement if their desire for closer relations with Europe are not satisfied.

At the same time, the European Union has also chosen to expand eastwards, beginning accession talks with five North and Central European states ahead of Turkey, even though Ankara has had an Association Agreement with the EU since 1963 and applied to join in 1987, when those states were still under communist governments.

The EU also plans to begin accession negotiations with Cyprus as a result of a promise made by the EU to Greece in 1995, despite vehement Turkish objections that Cyprus should not be allowed in before Turkey itself. Athens says that if EU membership is not extended to Cyprus it will veto the accession of the Central Europeans.

Ticking clock

Of all these internal and external changes, by far the most consequential – at least in the short term – is that created by the EU’s planned extension of membership to Cyprus. The prospect of getting into the EU has led to a flurry of diplomatic activity – including the sending of special envoys from the US, EU, and United Nations – designed to help the divided Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities reach agreement so that Cyprus can join as a unified, federal state.

But the ‘ticking clock’ of membership negotiations has also pushed each side on the island to try to solidify its position and strengthen its leverage.

Turkish Cypriots have said that if the EU admits Cyprus before a deal they approve of can be reached on the island, they will complete economic and military integration with Turkey and put an end to hopes of reunification.

Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, also want to negotiate from a position of strength. Accordingly, they have been expanding defence ties with Greece and pursuing a military build-up, including a January 1997 agreement to purchase Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Turkish leaders claim that these missiles – just 100 km off Turkey’s southern coast – would be a threat both to Turkey’s airspace and its territory, and they have bluntly threatened to destroy them if the Greek Cypriots go ahead with the deployment. Few military analysts doubt Turkey’s ability, or willingness, to do so.

The EU, then – together with forces beyond its control – has set off a process that will have important consequences for a Greece - Turkey relationship that one way or another is going to change. If all goes well, the EU’s gambit over Cyprus will pay off : Greek and Turkish Cypriots will reach an agreement on a unified island, Cyprus will join the EU, and Turkey will choose to strengthen its relationship with the EU rather than pull away from it. If all does not go well, however – and this is the far more likely scenario – the EU will have been responsible for setting off a chain of events whose conclusion no one can predict.

To understand Europe’s prospects for managing this volatile situation, it is necessary to appreciate European perspectives on, and interests in, the Greece-Turkey conflict. First, it is important to distinguish European views from those of the United States, for the perspectives of the two main outside players in the eastern Mediterranean will be an important factor in the efforts to broker compromises in the region.

Since the end of the Cold Wa r, European and American views toward Greece-Turkey have diverged. Whereas Europe increasingly views the region through the prism of EU politics – the urge to satisfy Greece, a vetototing EU member, and the perceived need to keep Turkey at arm’s length – the US sees south Balkan issues primarily through a geopolitical prism. Thus, whereas Europeans may view Turkey as less important than during the Cold Wa r, when it was crucial in the containment of Soviet communism, for Americans Turkey is now as important as ever strategically because of its role in the Middle East and the Islamic world.

As Special Cyprus Negotiator Richard Holbrooke has put it, reflecting much American thinking on the issue, ‘Turkey is at the crossroads of almost every issue of importance to the United States on the Eurasian continent, including NATO, the Balkans, the Aegean, Iraqi sanctions, Russian relations with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, peace in the Middle East, and transit routes for Central Asian oil and gas.’ All these issues are important to Europeans as well as Americans, but they are less salient in Europe, where they must compete with EU issues for attention and priority.

Whereas the US Congress will continue to look critically at Turkey’s human rights record and pay close attention to the interests of the influential Greek-American community, America’s global strategic interests will ensure that the government – and even more so the US military – will be very sensitive to Turkish views and interests.

As a result of the differing US and European views of Greece and Turkey, their policies tend to differ as well. To simplify only slightly, since the overwhelming US strategic interest is in a stable, Western-oriented Turkey, Americans place great priority on integrating Turkey into the Western community.

Examples of this US priority include the emphasis on Turkey as a NATO member, active US support during 1995 for an EU Customs Union with Turkey, a recent strengthening of US-Turkey defence ties, the Commerce Department’s inclusion of Turkey as one of 10 ‘Big Emerging Markets,’ and the Clinton Administration’s push to complete arms transfers that had been held up by Congress.

Trend to ‘exclusion’

European policy, on the other hand – influenced by EU politics, Greece, and (through the role of the European parliament) considerations of democracy and human rights – tends more toward exclusion of Turkey.

‘Exclusion’ is of course not the objective of EU policy – the opposite is the case – but it nonetheless results from internal EU imperatives: the unwillingness to offer Turkey a clear perspective on EU membership; the beginning of EU accession negotiations with Cyprus and the Central Europeans but not Turkey; a tendency to side with Greece in the Aegean dispute; and pressure from the European Parliament (and sometimes Greece) to block economic assistance to Turkey.

There are legitimate reasons for all of these European positions, but they nonetheless result in a set of policies that puts greater emphasis on advancing the EU and protecting Greek interests than it does on protecting Turkey’s position. The result is that, while failing to entirely satisfy Greece – which would like to see even more solidarity – the EU’s relations with Turkey are poor. When it comes to playing an ‘honest broker’ role in sorting out the problems caused by the Cyprus issue all of these factors will make Europe’s position more difficult.

The EU’s tendency to give higher priority to Greek than to Turkish interests in the Aegean constrains European mediation between Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. European countries support Greece’s view that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea applies to the Aegean, that international law should determine territorial waters, that Greece has a legal right to territorial waters 12 miles off its island coasts (though it should not exercise that right), and that the Greek-inhabited (and uninhabited) islands in the Aegean – however close to the Turkish mainland – are unambiguously Greek. During the January 1996 crisis over the Imia/Kardak islet, European leaders were sharply critical of Turkey’s territorial claim.

Limited solidarity

While acknowledging the EU’s relative bias toward Greece on these issues, it is necessary to note the limits of EU solidarity. Greece was very disappointed when the Western European Union (WEU) made it clear in 1992 that Greek membership would not apply to a Greece-Turkey war, and Greeks were also unhappy with their European partners’ unwillingness to incorporate a commitment to EU ‘territorial integrity’ in the Amsterdam Treaty last June. But the EU’s and WEU’s positions no doubt reflect a reality that Greece must bear in mind as it contemplates possible confrontations with Turkey.

If a military conflict were to erupt in the Aegean – perhaps a spillover from a clash over Cyprus provoked by the S-300 deployment – the EU and WEU would be highly unlikely to take up arms against Turkey. Europeans, perhaps working through NATO, might eventually play some sort of a role, and they would have a great interest in trying to contain any confli c t But for all the talk of an EU Common Foreign and Security Policy or an EU common defence, the Europeans are unlikely ever to show the sort of solidarity Greece would ideally like and expect.

In a perfect world, membership of a political union like the EU would imply total commitment to every member states borders and an automatic willingness to defend them even with military force. European leaders will have to be aware that such solidarity may not be forthcoming as they contemplate the possibility of taking in one part of Cyprus without an agreement with the other.

Border with Iran

To talk about ‘the Europeans’ as if they all had exactly the same view and same interests, of course, is misleading. European attitudes toward Greece and Turkey run along a spectrum that goes from Britain and France – which are most sympathetic to Turkish causes – to Greece and Germany, which are least able or willing to accommodate the Turks. Since most other EU members do not have a particular stake in the conflict, in the interest of a cohesive European Union, they tend to side most often with Greece.

The German position is the most important, and it is driven primarily by the presence there of more than 2 million ethnic Tu r k s . Because full Turkish membership in the EU would imply free movement of labour between Turkey and Germany, it is something most Germans do not even want to consider, given their already difficult relationship with their Turkish inhabitants.

The German aversion to bringing Turkey too close to the EU is also motivated by Bonn’s continued desire to preserve the EU as a potential political, economic and cultural federation, something that would become even less likely were Turkey to join. A recent headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – ‘Should the EU Have Borders with Iran?’ – gave telling expression to the view of potential Turkish membership.

So long as this is the case – and it will be for the foreseeable future – Turkish prospects for joining the EU will be poor. And equally, the prospects for a smooth resolution to the Cyprus accession issue will also be poor, since Turkey will never agree to let Cyprus join the EU unless it joins too.


So how will the endgame over Cyprus play out? The ideal – and intended – outcome would be for the Cypriot parties to reconcile before EU accession negotiations begin early this year. Cyprus could then join the Union as a unified, federal state to the great benefit of both communities. The EU’s gambit would have not only have succeeded in appeasing Greece, but by bringing an end to Cyprus’ division would have resolved one of Europe’s most longstanding conflicts.

The chances of this, however, are remote, as EU leaders should have realised at the time. Though the logic of enticing Turkish Cypriots into a deal using economic incentives makes theoretical sense, it overlooks the fact that the Turkish Cypriots act not out of economic interest – if that were the case they would not have chosen to live under a near-total economic embargo for more than twenty years – but out of insecurity and the desire for ethnic self-determination.

In this context, the idea that the carrot of EU membership would lead them to give up the protection of mainland Turkey and live again as a vulnerable minority on the island was always either naive or disingenuous. It was also implausible to think that Turkey – a big, growing, and powerful country – would fail to back the Turkish Cypriots under pressure from the EU.

Europeans who realised this at the time no doubt agreed to begin accession negotiations with Cyprus as a matter of political expediency – to lift the Greek veto on the customs union with Turkey, a worthwhile cause – but they are paying the price now.

The second possible outcome is that the EU continues in good faith to push for a settlement on the island, but when that fails – as it almost surely will – the EU will admit defeat and announce that negotiations will not proceed until the Cypriot communities come to terms.

This is of course the outcome that Turkey would like – since most Turks are satisfie d with the status quo anyway – and also what some Europeans would like, though they cannot admit it openly. The problem, though, is that it is getting harder and harder for the EU to walk away from a commitment that it has so publicly made.

EU leaders have made it very clear, in their Agenda 2000 on enlargement and in repeated official statements, that Cyprus’ right to join is not dependent on resolving the division of the island, and it will be very hard for them to retract such statements when negotiations begin.

And even if they wanted to back away from their pledge to bring in Cyprus, actually doing so could lead Greece to resurrect its threat to veto Central European accession to the EU or to block the ratification of the June 1997 Amsterdam Treaty.

Either of these actions would have a dramatically negative effect on Greece’s desire to improve relations with the rest of the EU, but given the strength of Greek public feeling on the Cyprus issue, such developments can hardly be excluded. Under these circumstances, Cyprus’ accession to the Union may prove impossible to stop. If the parties on Cyprus will not reach a deal, and the EU will not retract its offer of membership, the only option left is for Cyprus to join the EU even in the absence of an agreement on the island.

This would mean either accepting the island’s division and taking only southern Cyprus into the Union – something that both Greece and the Greek Cypriots would find impossible to accept – or declaring all of Cyprus part of the EU, but putting off the practical incorporation of the north until an agreement on the island could be reached.

Either of these options would almost certainly result in Turkey declaring its intention formally to integrate northern Cyprus into Turkey itself, and putting off – perhaps forever – the possibility of reintegration of Cyprus’ two ethnic communities.

The great irony of this scenario is that the European Union, having set out by offering Cyprus EU membership to provide incentives for the reunification of the island, would have succeeded in making permanent its division. And the greater irony of that is that partition of Cyprus, which neither Greece, Turkey, nor the international community is calling for, may be the most reasonable way of getting out of what has become a very big mess.