NEW YORK. – A decades-long effort to reunite the Mediterranean island of Cyprus collapsed Saturday, with voters on the Greek side of the island rejecting a United Nations-brokered plan.
But for Turkey, there may be a silver lining: International appreciation of its support for the failed plan may strengthen Turkeys case for membership in the European Union.
On the Turkish side of the island, which has been divided since 1974, 65 percent of voters accepted a U.N.-proposed compromise for reunification. On the Greek side, however, 76 percent of voters rejected the plan, brushing aside pleas and pressure from the U.N., the U.S. and the E.U. to accept the result of years of talks. The U.N. said it was closing its negotiators office, and the U.S. and E.U. described the vote as a setback.
The Greek side of Cyprus will now enter the European Union on May 1, while the Turkish side will be left outside.
But the vote was about more than that. It was a critical political test for the divisive enlargement issue that faces E.U. leaders in December: whether to open accession negotiations with Turkey, a Muslim nation of 70 million people with a secular government.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has moved decisively during the past year both to garner E.U. support and to force Turkeys security establishment to drop its long refusal to compromise on Cyprus. He sought to occupy the moral high ground following Saturdays vote. *#8220;We have now shown the international community our good intentions. But [Greek] Cyprus decided to waste it,*#8221; he said.
Greek Cypriots would have had to
accept a weak federation of two
politically equal states.
The lack of a formal deal on Cyprus still makes life difficult for Turkey, which has a garrison of 35,000 troops in the north of the island. Just one E.U. member*#8211;in the future, including Greek-led Cyprus*#8211;can veto the accession of another state to the union. That gives the Greek-Cypriot government the power to demand a reunification on its own terms as the price of a thumbs-up on Turkeys joining the E.U.. Other E.U. governments skeptical of Turkeys E.U. membership ambitions, meanwhile, could encourage a Cypriot veto as a means of escaping having to say no themselves.
*#8220;The Greek Cypriots have all the cards. That makes the E.U. policy makers very keen to reward the Turkish Cypriots in some way to encourage them to say yes again*#8221; in a future referendum, said Heather Grabbe, research director for the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank on E.U. affairs.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when a Greek-Cypriot coup attempted to unite the entire island with Greece, and Turkey invaded to block the plan. A population exchange sent Turks north and Greeks south.
The Turks and Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktashs self-declared statelet faced hard years of international opprobrium and trade embargoes. The rejected U.N. plan would have forced the Turks to pull back from occupying 37 percent of the island to 28.5 percent, to sharply reduce their garrison, to give up control of their main fresh-water supply and to move more than 40,000 people from occupied Greek homes. The Greek Cypriots would have had to accept a weak federation of two politically equal states, would have shouldered some of the financial burden of the relocations and would have had to accept that not all refugees could return home.
Until as late as January, all major Greek-Cypriot parties had indicated they would support the U.N. plan. In the end, their most notable objection was a demand for strong security guarantees and for more Greek-Cypriot refugees to be allowed back to the north. *#8220;I cant take the [Greek] reservations seriously,*#8221; the E.U. commissioner responsible for its expansion policy, Guenter Verheugen, told Germanys ARD television.
*#8220;What we will seriously consider now is finding a way to end the economic isolation of the Turkish Cypriots.*#8221;
The Greek side, which has long had a monopoly of international support as the legitimate government of Cyprus, struggled to deal with the perception it was simply stalling a settlement to gain negotiating advantage later as a full E.U. member. Our people *#8220;have not said *#8216;no to a solution, but just no to this plan,*#8221; said Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos.
The question of whether to begin negotiating Turkeys accession to the E.U. has become a campaign issue ahead of European Parliament elections this June, with Socialists in Germany and elsewhere supporting Turkeys bid and many Christian Democrats dead-set against a Turkish E.U. membership bid. Last week Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel called the E.U. decision on whether to open accession talks with Turkey *#8220;one of the most momentous decisions*#8221; the E.U. will ever make.
Major states like Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy*#8211;as well as the U.S.*#8211;have voiced support for Turkeys membership in the E.U. as a secular, moderating influence for the Islamic world. But France has said that Turkey hasnt yet fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria on human rights and civilian rule. To join the E.U., Turkey must convince Europeans it is progressing toward having an army under civilian control, a market economy and full human rights.
The human-rights criterion suffered a setback last week when a Turkish court upheld 15-year prison sentences on four former members of parliament jailed for links to Turkeys banned rebel Kurdish guerrillas. The European Commission, which will recommend to E.U. leaders whether to open talks with Turkey, said *#8220;this casts a shadow over Turkish political reforms.*#8221; The European Court of Human Rights has ruled the original trial of the Kurdish parliamentarians in 1994 was unfair.
Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal.