When EU foreign ministers last December praised Turkey’s achievements in the areas of the judiciary, civil-military relations and cultural rights, they went on to express their satisfaction with Turkish democratisation efforts and to note the positive regional role it plays. They also demanded that Ankara should step up its efforts to comply fully with the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership – human rights and so on – but puzzlingly they neglected to mention Turkey’s offer on normalising its relations with the Republic of Cyprus.
In effect, the EU was saying that the eight suspended chapters of Turkey’s accession negotiations would remain suspended, and that a recent offer by Turkey’s chief negotiator, Egemen Bağış, aimed at normalising Ankara’s relations with the Greek Cypriots was going to be ignored.
The intensified negotiations on the Cyprus problem in the coming months have once again raised hopes of a settlement. But the outcome of last December’s General Affairs Council already looks like yet another missed opportunity. The EU foreign ministers, who of course included Marcos Κyprianou of Cyprus, could have responded to Turkey’s call much more positively and welcomed it as a confidence-building tool for the ongoing negotiations.
EU member governments, many Turks now believe, are not yet willing to back such an ingenious solution, preferring instead to defer a potentially confrontational decision and rely once again on the UN to find a solution. That’s thought to be why they back-tracked on the EU’s March 2004 promises and decided not to decide. They put the ball firmly back in the Commission’s court and asked it to monitor the situation closely and report back to them.
But the assembled foreign ministers were of course well aware of the offer made by Mr. Bağış, not least because it had been publicly announced in Istanbul in the presence of the EU’s then enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn as well as several EU ambassadors. Bağış‘s offer had marked a significant retreat from the previous Turkish position of January 2006, which linked Turkey’s meeting of its Customs Union responsibilities to issues like direct flights into Ercan airport on the Turkish side of the island.
Bağış’s new offer was a face-saving formula, but also one that is seen by many Turks as an historic opportunity for normalising relations with the Greek part of the island. For Turkey is now linking the normalisation of relations with the Republic of Cyprus solely to the acceptance of the Direct Trade Regulation drafted by the European Commission back in 2004. That promise was made only two days after the simultaneous referenda on adoption of the UN’s Annan Plan, which on the Greek Cypriot side had been rejected by 75.8% of the voters.