Varosha, a portion of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, has been inaccessible since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. This caused the island to be split into two de facto nations, and Turkey has maintained control of the area as a negotiating tool ever since. While the main Cypriot state is recognized as the leader of the entire island internationally, in practice the Turkish backed nation of Northern Cyprus is in fact in control of the northern region of the island. This region has an ethnic Turkish population, but due to the majority ethnic Greek population of Cyprus as a whole, the Greek-Turkish conflict has defined the relationship between Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey. In 2004 Cyprus joined the EU, which means that a portion of an EU member state is under armed occupation. As a result of this, as well as concerns about a lack of cultural similarity to Europe, Turkey’s bid to become a member stalled in 2006. Until Turkey changes its policy on Cyprus, it is unlikely they will be allowed into the EU due to the opposition of Germany, France, and several other large EU states. In recent negotiations on immigration, EU membership has remained one of Turkey’s primary goals.
The Annan Plan, which would have provided for a democratic government of Cyprus with representation from both the North and South, was brokered from 2002 to 2004 by the then Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan. When put to referendum it was supported by a majority of Turkish, but not Greek, residents. Further attempts at reunification largely stalled until 2008, when talks reopened. However, from 2008-2012, talks were largely unsuccessful, with no agreement reached. In 2012 the EU found that there was little hope for a settlement.
However, the election of Nicos Anastasiades as president of Cyprus in 2013 cleared the way for future talks. In February 2014, Anastasiades and his Northern Cypriot counterpart Derviş Eroğlu issued a joint declaration, establishing their intent to establish a “bicommunal, bizonal federation with political equality.” Talks ran from February to October, and while the tone was initially positive and expectations were high, the talks ended when a Turkish warship entered the waters off the coast of Norther Cyprus. This act caused Anastasiades to terminate his participation in the talks.
Mustafa Akıncı’s election in 2015 prompted talks to resume, as Akıncı campaigned on a platform of reunification and reconciliation. As former leader of the Peace and Democracy movement (Barış ve Demokrasi Hareketi), a defunct social democratic Northern-Cypriot political party, he pushed for the acceptance of the Annan plan, as well as EU integration. In May 2015 talks resumed, picking up pace in recent months, though neither side released substantive updates concerning progress. Nonetheless, in July 2015 Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said he was “optimistic” after meeting with both leaders. He also alluded to the importance of energy, especially the importance of offshore oil deposits in ongoing negotiations. In December, after meeting with Cypriot officials, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that, “tangible progress is being made.”
Talks markedly intensified in January, with both sides of the negotiation claiming progress. The two leaders scheduled a meeting in Davos at the World Economic Forum to help broker a negotiation. Anastasiades said he was hopeful that reunification could occur in 2016, while on the contrary, Akıncı expressed reserved optimism.
Recently, energy has become a key point of discussion in the region. Cyprus, Greece, and Israel all met in order to improve relations and establish energy projects such as a natural gas pipeline from somewhere in the east coast of the Mediterranean sea to Europe via Cyprus, or offshore drilling platforms off the coast of Cyprus. Many commentators have viewed this meeting as an attempt to push Israel and Turkey to normalize relations. Many of the energy projects require support from both nations to be implemented, as they would go through Northern Cypriot or contested Cypriot waters, currently controlled by the Turkey-backed north. In January, an Israeli company and a Turkish company signed a $1.3 billion gas deal, but the two nations have yet to approve it. Most of these projects revolve around transporting oil from Israel to the EU in an efficient manner.
The importance of Cyprus cannot be overstated. Although the island is one of the smallest EU member states, it continues to voice strong opposition to the acceptance of Turkey. This opposition was integral to the talks over migrants between Germany and Greece in October 2015 because Germany has historically been opposed to Turkish membership. One of the incentives Turkey sought for cooperation with the EU on migrant issues was continued talks on their membership. Although Germany agreed to be flexible with some of the criteria, Cyprus remains a key hurdle to opening these negotiations.
Additionally, the potential for regional negotiation on energy, as well as the importance of Cyprus if Turkey is to join, are both strong motivators for the Turkish government and ethnic Cypriot groups to negotiate a settlement. The Turkish government has refused to allow the usage of ports in Northern Cyprus despite EU trade agreements. With Turkey and Greece both playing key roles in ongoing refugee talks, and Greece seeking additional bailout funds, pressure has mounted on both nations to not interfere in the negotiations between the two Cypriot states. It seems that for the first time both factions of Cypriots, Greece and Turkey all have motivation to reconcile the division that stems from a 40 year old conflict.
Image by Michael Kirian