Brussels, 6 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It has been a busy week for Cyprus diplomacy.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited both sides to resume talks on the reunification of the divided island. European Union officials have signaled the dispute may soon be resolved. And Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul is today capping off a two-day visit to Brussels to meet with EU officials on the Cyprus question.
Although the EU has been careful to stress it will leave the mediating to Annan, it is clearly a major player in the Cyprus talks. The timetable allows talks to wrap up ahead of the island's scheduled EU entry on 1 May. Turkey itself is awaiting a decision from Brussels later this year on whether it can begin accession talks.
Verheugen said Turkey's preparations have been "impressive," adding there is now enough common ground between Brussels and Ankara to cover the remaining issues.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen met this morning with Gul. Afterwards, he expressed optimism that the Cyprus question could soon be resolved. "My view is that the assumption of talks is that both parties are basically already agreed that there will be a settlement," Verheugen said. "Kofi Annan's conditions are very clear and my understanding was that he would not resume talks without sufficient guarantees from both parties that his conditions are met."
But reports suggest Annan will present many of the same conditions he did during last year's talks -- conditions the Turkish side rejected.
This morning, Gul twice turned down the opportunity to confirm Turkey's readiness to restart talks. Instead, he said he will first need to discuss the issue with the Turkish government and Rauf Denktash, the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, who is currently in Ankara.
"As you know, we pushed everything to start the negotiations," Gul said. "In fact, we made this effort [bear] fruit. Now we received the letter yesterday. As you know, I'm here and they are waiting for me. [But] just now I'm going back to Ankara. We will evaluate everything, and then we will respond."
To emphasize the EU's resolve, Verheugen said the bloc is prepared to go a long way to adjust its legislation to accommodate a settlement. He said the EU only has two essential preconditions it will not drop -- that the eventual deal must respect basic EU "principles," such as respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; and that a reunified Cyprus must "speak with one voice" within the EU.
Verheugen also indicated the EU has increased the funds earmarked for Cyprus, saying they now stand at over 300 million euros.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana yesterday met with Gul, saying afterwards that Cyprus comes "first on his radar screen."
"We know that the letters [of invitation] have already been sent," Solana said. "We hope that the letters will find a response so that Mr. Kofi Annan will have a positive response soon. We are looking forward to the beginning of the negotiations. We will be ready, if necessary, to help, of course. We will always be ready and [everybody knows] that they can count on us, particularly me, [if] they need something in order to make these negotiations that the secretary-general of the United Nations has launched to bring them to a good, successful [conclusion] in the time that he has considered appropriate."
However, one EU official told RFE/RL today that while the EU is "pushing very hard," the Turkish side is still "playing hide and seek," suggesting a full breakthrough has not been achieved yet.
The Turkish foreign minister used much of his visit to Brussels to promote his country's membership of the EU. Speaking at the annual meeting of the EU's conservative and Christian-democratic parties in Brussels yesterday, he said Turkey would be an "asset, never a problem" if admitted by the bloc.
"I do not wish to repeat what Turkey could contribute to the EU's position globally and in the region. We're all aware that Turkey is located in a region that has historically been the center of European civilization, culture, and religions. Now, this same location provides strategic and political depth for Europe," Gul said. He also said Turkey is "trying to go beyond itself in every field" to meet EU accession criteria.
The European Union will rule in October whether Turkey has done enough to start enlargement talks. This morning, Verheugen said Turkey's preparations have been "impressive," adding there is now enough common ground between Brussels and Ankara to cover the remaining issues.
In a further sign that the EU may deliver a positive decision for Turkey in October, Verheugen said he has promised Gul the European Commission will not "surprise" Turkey with a list of problems at the end of the year. Instead, he said, Brussels will be keeping the country fully abreast of its thinking, giving Turkey an opportunity to respond at every turn.
The commission's support for Turkey notwithstanding, the final decision rests with the member states. Those debates have barely begun and not all are in favor. Yesterday's conference of right-wing parties -- the largest political force within the bloc -- brought indications that Turkish EU membership could become an important issue in the upcoming European Parliament elections in June.
Yesterday, Solana strongly hinted that the EU would appreciate stronger Turkish support for its common foreign and security policy. He noted that Turkey has been asked to mediate between Israel and Syria, and said the EU considers Turkey a "very important" factor in the future of Iraq.