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Dangerous Turkish Gamble on Cyprus and EU

By Ziya Meral.

A remarkable series of public declarations by Turkish officials last weeks are causing increasing concern over the future of Turkish-EU relations and possible solutions to the Cyprus problem.

It first started with comments made by the Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu two weeks ago. Davutoglu publicly stated that unless the Cyprus issue is resolved by early 2012, negotiations with the EU may be frozen. This deadline is based on the start of Cyprus' turn for EU presidency. Since Turkey does not officially accept the existence of the Republic of Cyprus, the FM argued that Turkey cannot engage with the EU presidency while Cyprus is in office; thus EU-Turkish relations will, de facto, be frozen.

Then came the harsher comments by the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan over the last week. Prior to his visit to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the PM gave a series of interviews to the Turkish and Cypriot press, as well as some stronger public talks while on the disputed island.

The Prime Minister declared that the issue has to be solved at least in principle, and agreements reached before the EU presidency, underlining Turkey's preference for a federal unification of both sides of the island. In addition, Erdogan has retracted AK Party's (AKP) willingness to offer land swaps in certain areas and clearly asserted that if no agreement is reached by July 2012, Turkey and the TRNC will close negotiations and the island will forever be two independent states on current borders. This clear Turkish challenge puts the ball not only in the Greek Cypriot but also the EU's court.

Erdogan was key in triggering the initiatives undertaken by Kofi Annan, which came to an abrupt end when the Greek Cypriots voted 'No' to the UN's proposals. In contrast, the Turkish Cypriots voted 'Yes' with a clear majority. AKP had in fact put serious political capital behind the Annan plan.

While Kofi Annan gave up on solving the issue, the EU took a controversial decision and allowed the Republic of Cyprus into the EU without any concrete solution to the conflict. This has subsequently caused both the TRNC and Turkey to feel betrayed and disillusioned as they upheld their sides of the bargain.

Ever since, Greek Cyprus has vetoed EU-Turkish accession talks at every step of the conversation. Since EU countries remain divided on the Turkish bid, it is no surprise that Turkey believes that neither the Republic of Cyprus nor the EU actually want to solve this problem and quicken the Turkish accession into the EU.

The fact that the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon recently initiated a preliminary meeting with Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders for a final UN attempt to unite the island, has triggered the latest escalation of Turkey's focus on the island. The General Secretary too sees these talks as a last chance. Until now, neither the EU nor Greek Cyprus seem moved by Turkish and UN timelines and demands, while sponsor country Greece is too troubled domestically to even engage on the issue.

A catalytic shock was indeed needed to conclude, positively or negatively, the nightmare problem that has caused so many diplomats and mediators severe depression. In such a scenario there are only three possible outcomes from this gamble.

Either, the EU will show their resolve and thus pressure the Republic of Cyprus to let go of maximalist goals and accept in principle a timetable for the unification of the island, thus compromise; or, this would indeed finally end all chances of unification, and see the TRNC and Turkey begin work on long term nation-building.

While the former result would have tremendously positive outcomes both for Cyprus, the EU, Greece, Turkey and the feeble Eastern Mediterranean, the latter would not only result in EU-Turkish relations being frozen during Cypriot presidency, eventual political solutions for EU-Turkey tensions would be much harder to identify.

Even though the populist French and German political mood might seem to argue for exclusion of Turkey from the EU, in actuality, all of the EU states are acutely aware that they need Turkey, both economically and increasingly diplomatically as Turkey deepens its regional power and appeal. While Turkey will never give up bilateral relations with European countries, it also looks less and less in need of EU membership.

The third outcome from this gamble might be that AKP will eventually have to retract its deadlines and harsh tones, and accept the status quo. Then, AKP would have to face serious loss of diplomatic capital and a weaker stand against the EU countries which oppose Turkish membership. This would enable Greek Cyprus to find a way out of being seen as the primary reason why the issue is not solved, and blame Turkey for being the unreasonable party.

It is high time, not only to show genuine will to solve the Cyprus problem, but also once and for all finalize whether Turkey will ever be an EU state. The AKP seem set to force the moment to a crisis to find a conclusion; a dangerous, but much needed gamble.