Tony Barber How the EU should react to possible breakdown of Cyprus talks

Like it or not, the European Union faces the distinct possibility that the latest United Nations-mediated effort at producing a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus dispute will fail.  From a EU perspective, would that be a disaster?  Or just a bit depressing and annoying?  Disaster is a strong word, but the consequences of failure would unquestionably be serious.

Talks between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have been going on for the past 12 months, and the next round is due to be held on Thursday – having been postponed for a week, because of a row over some Greek Cypriot pilgrims who were trying to visit a church in Turkish Cypriot territory.

Nothing much has changed in the Cyprus dispute since 1974, when Turkish forces occupied the north of the island in response to a Greek-inspired coup aimed at enosis, or the union of Cyprus with Greece.  Turkish troops and settlers are still there in the north, but the Greek Cypriots control the internationally recognised government of the island.  What is more, they secured entry into the EU in 2004.  As a result, their 26 EU partners are virtually compelled to support them in anything related to the Cyprus dispute, even if some EU governments privately fume at Greek Cypriot behaviour.

Greek Cypriot public opinion seems to take the view that it would not matter much if the talks were to break down.  When the most recent UN-brokered deal was put to the two communities in referendums in 2004, the Turkish Cypriots approved it by 65 to 35 per cent, but the Greek Cypriots rejected it by a crushing 76 to 24 per cent.

The Greek Cypriots should stop being complacent, however, and read the excellent report published this week by the Independent Commission on Turkey, a panel chaired by Martti Ahtisaari, Finland’s 2008 Nobel peace prize winner.  The report describes the current peace talks as probably “the last chance for a federal settlement”.  Put another way, if the talks collapse, the Greek Cypriots will be looking at a future in which Turkey’s armed forces maintain a presence on the island for the indefinite future.  Is that what they really want?

A second unwelcome consequence would be that co-operation between the EU and Nato, so important for transatlantic relations, would continue to be blocked by differences between Cyprus and Turkey.  Lastly, the collapse of the Cyprus negotiations could torpedo Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

Here it is important that certain EU member-states, above all France and Germany, which are sceptical about Turkish entry into the bloc, show responsibility.  It would be all too easy to use the collapse of the talks as an excuse to punish Turkey and bury its membership aspirations forever.  But that would be unwise.  Holding out the prospect of membership is one of the most important levers the EU possesses to steer Turkish domestic reforms in a positive direction.

If the worst happens, and the Cyprus talks break down, the EU must still keep alive Turkey’s EU accession process.