As a new round of talks started on February 11, 2014 between Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu—respectively the leaders of Cyprus’s Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities—cynicism is rife among ordinary Cypriots. Most people think it will take a miracle of some kind to reach a settlement anytime soon.
This is due to a number of reasons: The four-month delay in starting the talks over what were widely seen as pedantic details, the disappointment of high hopes invested in the 2008–12 talks, and the failure of the 2004 Annan Plan, which was accepted by 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots and most of the international community but rejected by 76 percent of Greek Cypriots.
After all, the goal of the talks, a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation for Cyprus, is not new; the UN-facilitated parameters are much the same, and many of those involved in the talks are veteran negotiators. The process now started is in large part an attempt to revive the round of talks held between 2008–12, itself the fifth major round in nearly four decades.
Three new aspects have, however, excited some diplomatic hopes. The first is that Anastasiades, who was elected as president of the Republic of Cyprus a year ago, has made it clear he is seeking a light federal structure for any new republic, with constituent entities controlling their own borders and citizens having no contact with the central federation government in their daily lives. This is a more realistic approach than that of his predecessors and is more likely to lead to a settlement with the Turkish Cypriots, who are keen to keep as much power in their constituent entity as possible.
The second novelty is that the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot chief negotiators will soon visit Ankara and Athens respectively, opening up a vital new channel of communication. Especially on the Greek Cypriot–Ankara axis, a lack of trust, and an inability to see that the other side really does want a deal, has long held back progress.
The third new aspect is that the United States has taken a leading role in pressing for this round of talks to start. One reason is the increasingly active world of east Mediterranean energy politics. An American company, Noble Energy, is the main operator working to extract natural gas from deposits discovered in the eastern Mediterranean over the past decade. The most commercial deposits have so far been found in Israeli waters, but there is significant potential in offshore Cyprus too.
The cheapest, quickest, most secure and profitable way to get this gas to market is probably by pipeline to Turkey. But such a pipeline would have to pass through Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and a senior Greek Cypriot official tells us there is no chance Nicosia will allow that to happen before a Cyprus settlement is agreed, or, at the least, before there is a very good prospect of one. And if a settlement doesn’t materialize quickly, energy experts say the Israeli developers will choose a more expensive, but more certain, alternative export method, such as a floating terminal that freezes and liquefies the gas to load into tankers.
The US is interested in supporting Israel as its ally appears to seek an insurance policy against Middle East turbulence by building a stronger line to the European Union through closer ties with Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. A gas pipeline linking three or four of these countries would be one way of reinforcing such a strategy. US mediation since March 2013 is also now close to resolving the crisis of confidence between Israel and Turkey.
The best confidence-building measure to help the talks along their way would be for Turkey simply to extend its EU Customs Union to the Greek Cypriots, a measure that was already fully negotiated back in 2005 and is known as the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement. It has been blocked for political reasons in Ankara, partly as a sanction against Greek Cypriots but also because Turkey lost interest in actively pursuing EU membership.
Ratifying the Additional Protocol would be a leap forward on several tracks: it would normalize trade with Greek Cypriots, helping their economy, which was shattered in 2013 by a financial-sector meltdown, and change their perceptions of Turkey; it would clear the principal obstacle to opening fourteen of Turkey’s thirty-five negotiating chapters with the EU; it would almost certainly result in Turkish Cypriots winning tax-free “direct trade” with the EU; and it would greatly improve the atmosphere of the Cyprus settlement talks.
Turkey has shown no sign of doing any of this yet. But, after years of neglecting Cyprus and its EU accession process, Turkey has now announced that 2014 will be a ‘Year of Europe.’ In January, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Brussels for the first time in five years and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, played a crucial part in pushing forward the beginning of this new round of Cyprus talks. Such moves may partly be to shore up domestic popularity after a bumpy year, but they are steps in a positive direction.
Turkey should also undertake sustained outreach to Greek Cypriots. This was successful in 2010, when Prime Minister Erdoğan invited to Istanbul a group of former Greek Cypriot officials, journalists and civil society activists. At the meeting, they were wowed by his repeated assurances that he wanted to do a deal on Cyprus. This visibly began to neutralize one of the most important drivers of the Cyprus dispute: institutionalized Greek Cypriot fear of the intentions of their far bigger and more powerful neighbor.
While all sides would benefit from a settlement—any settlement—failure to make the politically painful compromises necessary to reach an outcome quickly will deepen the de facto partition of the island. Indeed, the level of disconnection between the two communities already looks almost irreversible. Lack of a settlement will leave Greek Cypriots isolated and poorer on the far eastern tip of the EU; Turkish Cypriots will remain stranded with little way to escape integration into Turkey; and NATO-member Turkey will be burdened with, at best, a frozen EU accession process and the steady drain on its resources of propping up the Turkish Cypriot administration.
Myriad regional benefits will also likely stay stuck: the EU and NATO will remain unable to share assets; east Mediterranean natural gas will remain orphaned from its most lucrative market in Turkey; and Greece and Turkey will most likely fail to solve their expensive maritime-boundaries dispute in the Aegean.