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Cyprus: Failure Of Referendum Means Headache For The EU

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The strong "no" vote from the Greek Cypriot community on the UN plan to reunify Cyprus has created a difficult political situation. The failure of the 24 April referendum now means that the Greek-Cypriot part of Cyprus will enter the European Union on 1 May without the Turkish-Cypriot part. The long-running issue of a divided Cyprus therefore becomes a problem for the EU, and could affect Turkey's quest for membership in the union.

Prague, 26 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Cyprus will remain divided along ethnic lines following the rejection by Greek Cypriots of a United Nations plan to reunify the island.

"Certainly, the refusal by the Greeks in Cyprus psychologically can play a certain role both in the attitudes within the European Union to Turkey belonging to the union, and probably more even in the atmosphere in Turkey."
At a referendum on 24 April, the Greek Cypriots voted by a crushing 75 percent to reject the UN plan for reunification with the Turkish Cypriots in the northern part of the island. The vote came just a week before accession to the European Union and means that only the Greek Cypriot sector of Cyprus will now be entering the EU.

Paradoxically, 65 percent of Turkish Cypriot voters favored ending 30 years of separation and reuniting with the Greeks in the larger, southern sector.

It is paradoxical in that the Turkish Cypriot side, under its veteran leader Rauf Denktash, had long been considered least likely to favor reunification. But Denktash's recent sidelining exposed a new political landscape.

Senior analyst at Bonn University's Centre for European Integration, Peter Zervakis, says, "The problem up till now is that the Greek Cypriots could always hide behind Denktash's negative stance on reunification, and could argue that, 'we wanted the basic plan of [UN Secretary-General Kofi] Annan, but just look, Denktash is against it.'"

But the Greek Cypriots lost this cover and were left "standing in the rain," as Zervakis puts it, when reformers fared well in Turkish Cypriot elections late last year, and expressed a new willingness to end the division.

"It then became obvious that [the aim of the Greek Cypriots] was always the reunification of Cyprus on Greek terms, which meant Greek rule over the entire island, with the Turks having minority rights -- the Turks would be granted privileged minority rights, but never a joint government, a government on the basis of parity, 50:50. Don't forget, the Greek Cypriots make some four-fifths of the population of Cyprus and they consider themselves as the true rulers of Cyprus," Zervakis said.

The UN plan that was rejected foresaw a loose federation of the two different sectors. Zervakis says, however, that the final version of the plan put to the referendum contained clauses which were not in the original that were unacceptable to the Greek side.

There has been widespread international dismay at the Greek Cypriot rejection of the Annan plan. Some of the sharpest criticism has come from EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who said in effect that the Greek Cypriots had staged a “double-cross.”

Zervakis considers such severe words unwise. That's because the EU is now seeking to reward the internationally isolated Turkish Cypriots for their "yes" vote, by lending them economic support.

But he says, "I want to point out that there will be a big problem in that the Republic of Cyprus -- that is, in effect, the Greek section of the island -- alone possesses the right to represent all Cyprus. That means that absolutely no aid package from the EU can be delivered to the Turkish north without the authorization of the Greek Cypriots."

Therefore, Verheugen's tactic of blaming the Greek-Cypriots is not particularly helpful, because he will need from 1 May their support for any help he wants to give the Turkish sector.

But, despite the failure of the reunion effort, the present situation is not without some advantages for the Turkish Cypriots. For instance, those Turkish-Cypriots who are eligible for passports issued by the Republic of Cyprus will in fact become individual citizens of the EU, and thus eligible for the benefits of union membership.

EU affairs analyst and legal expert Gabriel von Toggenburg of the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy, says: "They can have passports from the old Cypriot Republic, which is still in existence under international law -- and having Cypriot citizenship they then automatically will have EU citizenship."

Toggenburg says the situation is similar to that which pertained to divided Germany during the Cold War, in which West Germany applied the legal fiction that it represented the citizens of East Germany.

Even if the individuals gain EU citizenship, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus will remain outside the EU. The border between the two sectors of Cyprus becomes effectively an external border of the EU and it is at the moment unclear if eventual EU benefits like free exchange of goods and persons can be arranged.

And there is also the question of how the whole Cyprus affair will affect Turkey's drive itself to become an EU member. Alexander Smolar, director of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, says this is an important long-term strategic problem.

"Certainly, the refusal by the Greeks in Cyprus psychologically can play a certain role both in the attitudes within the European Union to Turkey belonging to the union, and probably more even in the atmosphere in Turkey," Smolar said.

Smolar says it is difficult to evaluate how Turkish thinking toward the union will change as a result of the failure of the Cyprus referendum.

Toggenburg says his view is that Turkey's long-running and controversial application will not be adversely affected because Ankara tried to do everything possible to coax the Turkish Cypriots to be cooperative.
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