Cyprus’s presidency of the European Council didn’t derail EU–Turkish relations but produced no results either. Tensions remain high.
When Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, the problem changed from an external to an internal matter with all attendant complications. Indeed, Nicosia has not shied away from liberally using its veto in the European Council to put pressure on Turkey, notably on issues such as the 2004 Ankara Agreement obliging Ankara to open ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. Given such constraints, the EU has been in damage-limitation mode rather than facilitating a comprehensive settlement resulting from the ongoing talks between Cypriot Greeks and Turks.
Fortunately, Turkey did not freeze its relations with the EU during the Cypriot presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2012, as it had threatened to do. Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over prospective sources of gas and oil that were so salient in 2011 went through a lull, only to re-emerge in October when Nicosia announced that it would license 15 companies (possibly including Italy’s ENI, France’s Total, and Russia’s Novatek) to explore for natural gas southwest of the island. Such moves, though helping Cyprus co-opt allies, may lead to new confrontations, particularly after Turkish jets chased Israeli military aircraft that intruded in what it sees as its own airspace north of Cyprus. The plans to use gas as an incentive for a deal have not materialised.
The year saw no significant breakthrough in the reunification talks that began in 2008. The issue of the hydrocarbons will be part of the agenda, but there is no indication that any of the sides are prepared to compromise. Meanwhile, politics in Greek Cyprus is focusing on immediate challenges such as the financial crisis that has hit the island in the wake of the troubles in Greece and the upcoming presidential elections in February 2013. President Dimitris Christofias is in a weak position following the setback his party, AKEL, suffered in the 2011 general elections. The lack of impetus from within the island has shifted both Turkey’s and the EU’s attention away from the Cyprus issue.