Cyprus would appear to be the perfect candidate for European Union membership. The country's negotiators are making rapid progress in accession negotiations with Brussels. Cyprus's GDP per capita is higher than the other candidates and already approaches EU averages. Yet, Cyprus faces an obstacle that is potentially greater than that facing any of the other candidates. The continuing stand-off between the island's Greek and Turkish communities could jeopardize the country's EU ambitions and is threatening to become a serious impediment to enlargement as a whole. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.
Brussels, 1 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Most public discussions within the EU of the possible dangers facing enlargement limit themselves to the cost of enlargement and public support.
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus is rarely mentioned in this context. Yet the potential hazard it represents to enlargement may be just as great as those two.
Cyprus remains divided between the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government in the south and the self-styled Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus, after Turkish troops invaded it in 1974 fearing a military junta in Greece would try to annex the island.
The Greek-Cypriot government in Nicosia is today a leading EU candidate. The Turkish community, on the other hand, suffers from a trade embargo and restrictions placed on tourist access. Its government, led by President Rauf Denktash, opposes accession into the EU, fearing it would downgrade Turkey's presence on the island and relegate the Turkish community to a minority status.
Both the Turkish and Greek Cypriots enjoy strong support from Ankara and Athens respectively. Ankara has made it clear it does not want to see Cyprus join the EU before Turkey. Should this happen, Turkey has threatened to annex the northern part of the island.
Greece, on the other hand, has repeatedly hinted that no enlargement can proceed without the inclusion of Cyprus. Athens could veto the accession of any other candidates should Cyprus be omitted.
From a purely objective standpoint, Cyprus leads all other countries seeking membership in the European Union.
Last week it overtook the other candidate states in the number of "chapters" of EU law it had closed during accession talks and now fulfills both the economic and political criteria for membership. Its citizens are relatively wealthy and average income levels now approach the EU average.
A year ago, the United Nations launched so-called "proximity talks" to try to bring the island's two communities together. Those talks broke down in November, when Denktash walked out in protest at not being recognized as a legitimate head of government.
But George Vasiliou -- Cyprus's head negotiator in EU accession talks and the country's former president -- told RFE/RL recently (27 July) that the talks could resume shortly:
"Unfortunately, up to [now], Mr. Denktash is insisting on keeping away from [the proximity] talks, although we do hope and we hear [behind the scenes] that he may decide to go back to the talks. I sincerely hope that this will happen, but more important [than Denktash going] back to the talks is that when he goes back, he decides not to insist on his ideas of a confederation - [that is], of two states -- because [this goes against] the major request of the [European] Union [that Cyprus remain one state]."
Denktash has confirmed he will shortly be traveling to New York to meet UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss the resumption of proximity talks. But recent public statements indicate his stance has not softened. In early June, Denktash told a Turkish-speaking Cypriot radio station that Cyprus should suspend its application to join the EU. Also, speaking on the 27th anniversary of the 20 July Turkish invasion of the island, Denktash explicitly ruled out a united Cyprus embracing both the Turkish and Greek communities.
Cyprus's Greek community has demonstrated a similar lack of restraint. Two weeks ago, Nicosia's ambassador to the EU, Theophilo Thepiliou, told the "Financial Times" that Cyprus would join the EU regardless of Turkey's objections. He also noted that as a member, Cyprus would then be able to veto Turkey's eventual membership.
The intransigence of both communities puts the EU in a difficult position. Although EU leaders promised at their Helsinki summit in December 1999 that the division of Cyprus would not be an obstacle to EU membership, this was done mainly to appease Greece and enable the bloc to nominate seven more candidates for membership -- Turkey among them. Several larger member states -- led by France and Britain -- have indicated they would block Cyprus's membership if it meant "importing" its political problems into the EU.
The problems are compounded by a dispute between the EU and Turkey over the EU's plans to create a rapid reaction military force. Turkey, a NATO member, has demanded full decision-making powers in operations that could affect Turkish interests. So far, the EU has said Turkey would only be offered the right to "close consultation."
Assuming that neither Ankara nor Athens is prepared to yield over Cyprus, the EU could find itself facing an unfortunate choice between enlarging or further developing its own defense policy.