Take a look at some previously unimaginable changes since the last breakdown in 2004. Turkish Cypriots are demonstrating against Turkish policies on the island. Turkey’s EU accession talks have slowed to crawl – mostly because of Cyprus – and the Turkish prime minister is almost daring EU leaders to break them off. And tumult in the Middle East has revealed the risks Turkey would be running if the Cyprus dispute really did result in politicians in Ankara carrying out their often-repeated threat to “choose Cyprus,” turn their back on Europe, and base Turkey’s future on going it alone as a regional player.
The time has come for Turkey to rebalance its policies toward Europe – whatever the current leaders of France and Germany do and say. A Turkish attitude of “love us or leave us” is not working and is alienating even Turkey’s traditional allies in the EU and NATO. Turkey’s reform program is stumbling without the discipline of the EU accession process. Scorning the EU because of political dysfunction or the euro crisis is premature: Europe still enjoys an average income double that of Turkey, a gap that will take at least a generation, and probably two to close.
The EU – the world’s biggest market – is also still the meat and potatoes of the Turkish economic diet. Half of Turkey’s exports go to Europe, two-thirds of its foreign investment comes from Europe, and more than 3 million Turks live there. By way of comparison, just 10 percent of Turkey’s tourists come from the Middle East, and just 110,000 Turks lived and worked there until recently. The region offers opportunities but volatile ones. It took a quarter of Turkey’s exports two decades ago, but that ratio plunged to a tenth a decade ago, then shot back to a quarter again last year. The past month’s exodus of 20,000 workers from Libya, the crisis in Egypt and problems elsewhere doubtless suggest that ups and downs will continue to be the pattern.
But tuning up the steady engine of the EU relationship and accession process means that Turkey has to do something about Cyprus. The EU-Turkey-Cyprus triangle of issues is inter-locked: all rise and fall together. The Cyprus dispute is used as an excuse to do nothing difficult by politicians not just in Europe, but also in Turkey. Another reason that the Cyprus talks since 2008 have not gone far is that both Turkey and Greek Cypriots – the main powers in the dispute – simply do not believe that the other side wants to do a deal, while in fact they do.
All sides suffer from the situation. European states and Turkey are both frustrated that they cannot normalize the EU relationship, formal EU-NATO ties remain impossible as Greek Cypriots and Turkey leverage their membership of those organizations against the other, and the 600,000 ethnic Greek Cypriots remain isolated and vulnerable on the far eastern tip of the EU.
Seeing this, it may be that the EU can broker a breakthrough set of phased confidence-building measures. But such packages are notoriously hard to organize. A much better and more certain plan would be for one or both of the two sides to simply begin unilaterally implementing confidence-building measures that will be part of almost any agreed settlement anyway – without prejudice to the talks on the eventual political reunification.
For its part, Ankara should be daring, since, unfair though this may seem to Turkish opinion, it is true that Turkey has far more pressing incentives to act than the Greek Cypriots. Turkey should open its ports, airports and airspace to Cyprus – implementing its signed EU obligation from 2005, the Additional Protocol. Doing so means instantly winning years’ worth of EU negotiating chapters, throwing a lifeline to pro-compromise Greek Cypriots, validating the ‘zero-problem’ foreign policy and making possible the trade and contacts that will build trust in a future political settlement.
Turkey should also hand back the sealed-off beach resort of Varosha to its Greek Cypriot owners – under an indefinite interim U.N. administration. This would reduce its multi-billion euro judicial liability for occupying someone else’s property, invigorate all Cypriots’ belief in a settlement and create an excellent way for Turkish Cypriots to find profitable work beyond taking Ankara’s handouts. If the Additional Protocol is ratified, Turkish construction firms could bid on the U.N. and other contracts too.
For their part, Greek Cypriots should make clear to Turkey their desire for a compromise settlement. They should immediately put an end to their policy of blocking half of Turkey’s EU accession chapters, which risks the real possibility of disaster for Nicosia if it actually kills off the membership negotiations. They should legitimize all Cypriots’ trade with EU states and the world through the port of Famagusta, under Turkish Cypriot management but with EU supervision and checks of Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce documents. They should find a way to legitimize international charter flights to the Turkish Cypriots’ Ercan airport, and begin de facto cooperation with Turkish Cypriot administrative bodies.
Above all, beyond trading, Turkey and the Greek Cypriots should start to talk and to listen to each other. Turkish officials must find a way to meet and get down to business with Greek Cypriot officials. Only then will the bitter anger leave the voices of diplomats when talking about each other, as is already happening between Turkey and Armenia, where contact has brought much greater understanding. This would allow all sides to begin to build trust, whose absence is the main reason why the talks since 2008 have made so little progress.
* Hugh Pope, Turkey/Cyprus Project Director for International Crisis Group, will present the Crisis Group’s latest report, “Cyprus: Six Steps Towards a Settlement,” at the TEPAV think tank in Ankara at 10 a.m. on Friday, March 4.