EU-Turkey Refugee Plan Could Seal UN Cyprus Deal

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A UN peacekeeper observes from the buffer zone dividing Cyprus. (UN Photo)

March 9, 2016 – The plan carved out by Brussels and Ankara on Monday to resettle Syrian refugees, if implemented, could also see a resolution to the four-decade Cyprus dispute, with UN-talks which resumed in May already yielding results.

Under the EU-Turkey plan, Syrian refugees would be returned to Turkey from Greece, and in return for Turkey’s promise to take back refugees, EU countries would agree to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey.

Ankara’s agreement is contingent on the EU liberalizing visa requirements for Turkey’s 75 million citizens and Turkey also wants to reopen EU accession talks. But for this to happen, Turkey will have to recognize EU member Cyprus. It is difficult to see any EU member state agreeing to reopen accession talks and green-lighting visa liberalization for Turks if Ankara refuses to recognize one of the EU-28. Moreover, Cyprus, as a member state, has a veto on accession talks.

The UN-backed Cyprus talks are aimed at reunification of Northern Cyprus, which is backed by Turkey, with the internationally recognized EU member state Cyprus. The Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the northern part following a coup d’etat ordered by Greece’s then military junta aimed at unifying Greece and Cyprus.

The coup and Turkish invasion were preceded by years of tension between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities and a UN peacekeeping force has been in place since 1964, making it the United Nations longest-running peacekeeping mission.

In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot community in the north declared independence from internationally recognized Cyprus, but Northern Cyprus is only recognized by Turkey.

Following the 1974 hostilities, UN troops were mandated to monitor the de-facto ceasefire and a 110-mile wide buffer zone was created that runs through Nicosia, Europe’s only divided capital.

While the situation has remained mostly calm since, a political solution has remained elusive and the Security Council has renewed the mandate for UNFICYP every six months.

But the election of a new Turkish leader in Northern Cyprus, Mustafa Akinci, last April – he campaigned on a peace platform – gave impetus to the talks. The Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades, elected in 2013, has long called for a deal.

The talks which began in May have been held at the highest level with both leaders agreeing to six rounds of face to face meetings and both also released video messages in each other’s respective language at the end of 2015 calling for a peace deal this year.

Any peace deal must be approved in referendums by both Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities.

A resolution to the dispute would ease tensions between fellow NATO members Greece and Turkey and would also pave the way for Turkey’s recognition of Cyprus, which in turn would ease the way for Cyprus to withdraw its veto over Turkey’s EU accession process.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan has long prized EU visa access and the refugee deal reached on Monday, if it goes ahead, could result in Turks being granted automatic Schengen visas in June, but only with Cyprus’s consent, and that’s why a resolution to the island’s 42-year dispute is crucial.

- Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz