An unscheduled visit to Cyprus by President of the European Council Donald Tusk this week ahead of Thursday’s critical EU leaders summit could prove crucial to the EU Turkey deal to stem the flow of migrants.
The agreement hinges on chapters in Turkey’s EU accession plan, some of which have been frozen by Cyprus, being opened, pitting the island against many other EU leaders. Tusk will visit Cyprus on Tuesday to discuss the EU-Turkey deal with President Nicos Anastasides, government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides tweeted on Saturday.
Anastasiades has repeatedly declared that he will not sign on to the deal unless Turkey moves on implementing EU protocols or solves the Cyprus problem.
On Friday Anastasiades said if the island’s veto jeopardises a deal between Ankara and Brussels to stem the migrant flow, which is due to be finalised on Thursday, it would not be Nicosia’s problem.
He said it was up to Ankara to respond to its obligations.
Although there is no way for any of Turkey’s accession chapters to open without the explicit consent of every member state, putting Cyprus against Turkey over the European deal amid fragile talks to resolve the Cyprus problem may be unwise said senior research fellow, Politics and International Relations at South-East Europe at the London School of Economics Dr James Ker-Lindsay.
He was commenting on speculation that the EU might insist on satisfying Turkey’s demand – among others – to reopen five accession chapters blocked by Cyprus before agreeing to be part of a joint operation to tackle the refugee crisis threatening to tear the union apart.
A candidate for full EU membership since 1999, Turkey saw eight – of a total 35 – accession chapters blocked by the European Council in 2006, after it failed to implement the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement, which meant allowing Cypriot-flagged ships to dock in Turkish ports, and planes flying from Cyprus to land in its airports.
Six more were blocked in 2009, unilaterally by Cyprus this time, because Turkey refuses to recognise the Cyprus government.
But although Cyprus’ EU membership appears to be the trump card – “enlargement policy is based on decision-making by unanimity”, an EU official close to the talks with Turkey told the Sunday Mail; in other words, there’s no way around a Cypriot veto – the decision it will have to make will not be an easy one.
“I do not think that the EU should compromise its fundamental values and open further chapters at this stage,” Ker-Lindsay told the Sunday Mail.
“Over the past few years, Turkey has become increasingly repressive. I sincerely believe that if Turkey was applying for membership now, it would not even be accepted for candidacy.”
And yet, he added, in its desperation, the EU is now talking about opening up more chapters.
Following the summit of EU leaders this week, where a tentative deal with Turkey was thrashed out, EU Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the European Commission’s pledge to resume Turkey’s accession course will be met, but added the veto caveat.
“The Commission is actively advancing the preparatory work on the five negotiating chapters,” she said.
“And following that, the preparatory work could also begin on further chapters. This obviously goes for the Commission, without prejudice to the positions of the member states.”
Construed as the Commission planning to resume frozen chapters despite any objections, the statement caused alarm in Cyprus. On Thursday, Anastasiades addressed the proverbial elephant in the room by pointing out that the operative word is “preparatory”. This was implicitly confirmed by an EU official.
“Once ready, the [Commission’s] preparatory documents will be sent to the Council for their decision.” Translation: ultimately, the member states will decide whether to reopen the chapters – or not – and 28 ‘Yays’ are needed.
Still, although the logic is sound – for want of a stick, Turkey was offered a sizeable carrot to contribute to a solution to the refugee crisis – implementation is not risk-free.
“I can understand the need to engage with Ankara, and even to offer it significant enticements, but this betrays the EU’s most basic values and undermines its standing as a defender of democratic values,” the LSE expert said.
“Still, now that it has decided to do so [offer Turkey the resumption of its accession talks], I am not sure that it is wise for Cyprus to be the country that blocks this. Nicosia needs to protect its own interests, and I am not sure that blocking chapters is the way to do it at this stage.”
The reason is that the top priority for the Cyprus government at this point is pressing ahead with ongoing talks to reunite the island, ending the 42-year occupation of its northern part by Turkey.
“By standing alone against Turkey, Cyprus may well throw the talks in jeopardy,” Ker-Lindsay said.
“If the Cypriot government feels that it cannot go the full way at this stage, then maybe it should consider allowing one or two – as a very conditional signal of its willingness to play a constructive role.”
Such a manoeuvre would cause Anastasiades’ government massive domestic backlash – “I [would] have no other choice but to not return back home”, he told the Financial Times on Friday – but this classic rock-and-a-hard-place predicament leaves it with no good options.
“Again, I am not condoning the opening of any chapters with Turkey,” Ker-Lindsay cautioned.
“I just wonder whether taking a decision to block chapters at this stage might negatively affect the talks.”
The flip-side of the argument was expressed by political scientist and writer Vasilis Protopapas.
“Turkey wants to revive its European accession course, and one of the problems it’s facing is the Cyprus problem,” he said on Tuesday.
“This is perhaps the first time we have the opportunity to negotiate issues that we had no way to table under normal circumstances.”
But the big picture is not the opening of ports and airports to Cyprus-flagged traffic, Protopapas argued; the ball game is a solution to the Cyprus problem. Turkey and the EU desperately want to come to an arrangement on the refugee issue, and for the first time in a long time, Cyprus might have some real leverage.
As hinted at by government spokesman Christodoulides, “Turkey’s demand to reopen accession chapters points to a strategic goal of seeking membership, and there are plenty of things it can do with regard to the Cyprus problem and its accession course”.
“At a time when both the EU and Turkey are both under pressure, tiny Cyprus can benefit,” he said.