Cyprus talks re-start with the US in the driving seat

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Victoria Nuland has done it again. Right after voicing her deep appreciation of EU foreign policy, the US Assistant Secretary of State has achieved what the European Union could not: she has managed to cajole Greek and Turkish Cypriots into re-starting talks on the island’s reunification after a five-month break. Cyprus represents a knock to the EU’s pride. The EU’s 2004 failure to use the accession process as an incentive to bring Greeks and Turks together in a shared polity ranks as one of Brussels’ top foreign policy missteps. The end result was that the problem was imported into the EU. Only the Greek part of the island joined the EU, while the Turkish northern section found itself in legal limbo. Turkey responded by blocking Greek Cypriot ships and aircraft from its territory, in breach of its legal commitments to the EU. The Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus blocked a number of chapters in Ankara’s EU accession talks, including those on judicial reform and justice and home affairs, measures deemed critical for domestic reform in Turkey. The EU is not a diplomatic mediator in the dispute; instead, it is very much part of the problem. Our Scorecard has consistently ranked the EU’s dealings with Turkey on the Cyprus issue as one of the most underperforming facets of its policy towards Wider Europe. But now, US diplomacy seems to have succeeded in bringing all sides around the table. And the potential for joint exploration of the Eastern Mediterranean’s hydrocarbons, together with the banking crisis that has dealt a blow to Greek Cypriots, has created conditions that could lend themselves to cooperation.

However, there have been many false dawns in the past. When the leftist Dimitris Christofias was elected president of the Republic of Cyprus in 2008, a lot of hope was invested in a leader who had been active in the island’s bicommunal trade union movement. But few results followed. His right-wing successor, Nicos Anastasiades, came to office in February last year with an altogether different set of priorities: he wanted to sort out the mess in the banking sector through an EU rescue package overseen by the dreaded Troika. At the moment, he and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Derviş Eroğlu, are sounding moderately upbeat. They say negotiations will be held in a “result-oriented manner”. But seasoned Cyprus watchers, such as the International Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope, are urging caution. Anastasiades has signalled his willingness to make concessions to Turkish Cypriots, for example, by accepting a more loose structure for a future federation on the island. However, the Turkish government has done far too little to build trust in Nicosia. Like the EU itself, Turkey is following a “wait-and-see” policy on Cyprus – even though the payoff for Turkey from a settlement would be huge, since 14 negotiations chapters would be unblocked and a robust push could be made in EU-Turkey accession talks.

As ever, the US seems to be the critical player. In spite of the potential roadblocks in Cyprus, the Obama administration sees renewed talks as part of a larger effort to patch things up between its regional allies in the Eastern Mediterranean. The re-start happens at the same time as Turkey and Israel are hammering out the details of a compensation package for the families of those who lost their lives in the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. It was President Obama who convinced Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologise to Turkey in March 2013. A settlement in Cyprus would remove yet another obstacle to cooperation between the US’s dissimilar friends in the region.

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