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Economics

Cyprus: It’s Over

20 November 2009

Cyprus: It’s Over

By Gwynne Dyer

The window of opportunity actually slammed shut in 2004, when Greek-Cypriot voters overwhelmingly rejected a United Nations plan to reunite the divided island of Cyprus. A week later the Greek-Cypriot government was allowed to join the European Union anyway, while the Turkish-Cypriots, who had voted in favour of the reunification plan, were frozen out. But some people just won’t give up.

A year ago, with new leadership on both sides, the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots embarked on another round of talks aimed at reunifying the island. As late as this September, Alexander Downer, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Cyprus, said that “what you have here are two leaders who are very committed to a successful outcome.” But good intentions are not enough.

Dimitris Christofias, the Greek-Cypriot president, and Mehmet Ali Talat, his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart, are old friends, and they both genuinely want to put the country back together, but they have made little progress and after fifty meetings time is running out. There will be elections in the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) in April, and the new president there is likely to be hostile to reunification.

Last time, in 2004, it was the Greek-Cypriot president who persuaded the voters on his side of dividing line to reject the UN proposal. There are bound to be times when one side or the other is led by somebody who wants to die in the last ditch. But there are also bound to be intervals, like the present one, when the leaders on both sides are in favour of unification.

So why talk of windows of opportunity shutting? Even if it doesn’t happen now, surely it will happen sooner or later. Alas, not necessarily.

Geopolitical realities normally change as slowly as the continents drift, but the tectonic plates are now moving fast in the eastern Mediterranean. The chance of Turkey ever joining the European Community is now shrinking rapidly towards zero – and without the incentive of that goal, why would Ankara ever force the Turkish population of North Cyprus back into a union with the Greek-dominated “Republic of Cyprus”?

The current obstacle to EU membership for Turkey, which first applied to join twenty-two years ago and has been an official candidate for the past decade, is the opposition of the German, Austrian and French governments. They are all conservative governments that believe a Muslim-majority country has no place in what they still see as a “Christian” Europe.

That is ugly nonsense, but not necessarily a deal-breaker: those governments will probably be replaced one day by others that take a more relaxed view of religious differences. After all, a clear majority of EU citizens are not interested in religion at all. Greece and the Republic of Cyprus would also veto Turkish membership today, but a deal between the two Cypriot communities would obviously remove that roadblock.

If anti-Muslim prejudice were the only obstacle to Turkey’s entry, then it could still become a EU member one of these days, but the tectonic shift is not driven by whoever is in power today in Paris, Berlin or Vienna. It is driven by a growing concern in the EU that global warming is going to generate huge numbers of desperate refugees in Africa and the Middle East – “climate refugees” who will end up trying to get into Europe.

Never mind if this is just, or even if it is an accurate vision of the future. If this view comes to prevail in the EU, the main question becomes: where do we hold the line against waves of climate refugees? Should we try to control the current frontier along the eastern borders of Greece and Bulgaria (about 300 km, 175 miles), or bring Turkey into the EU and try to control 1,100 km (750 miles) of borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia? Not rocket science, is it?

Unless it is overwhelmed by climate change, Turkey will be all right outside the EU. It will overtake Germany in population within a decade, and it already has a higher per capita income than several Eastern European members of the EU. Turkey was a second-rank great power until the end of the 19th century, and it is likely to be back in that role by the mid-21st.

But if that is the role Turkey will be playing in another generation, why would it want to withdraw its troops from North Cyprus and push the Turkish-Cypriots into a single state with the Greek-Cypriots now? Why would the Turkish-Cypriots themselves want to resume their place as an unloved minority in a Greek-run state, rather than retain their own state in close association with the rising regional great power?

The reply to that question ten years ago would have been: because Turkish-Cypriots are so poor. But the past decade has seen very rapid economic growth in North Cyprus. The gulf in living standards between the two parts of the island has dramatically narrowed, so reunification no longer seems the only escape from poverty to Turkish-Cypriots.

This is not the last chance for the reunification of Cyprus; 2004 was. Greek-speaking Cyprus is prosperous and secure, Turkish-speaking Cyprus is approaching the same state, and Turkey itself no longer has an incentive to support the creation of a reunified, federal state in Cyprus. Partition is permanent. It’s over.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 13. (“Last…necessarily”; and “The response…Turkish-Cypriots”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.