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EU Holds Out Hope for Cyprus Reunification Deal

DW staff (dsl)April 2, 2004

After the collapse of talks in Switzerland, Greek Cypriots seem poised to oppose a plan to reunite the island in an upcoming referendum. But European Union officials say the deal hasn't failed yet.

Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash isn't happy about the plan either.Image: AP

Before Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos even returned from failed negotiations in Switzerland, the streets of Greek Cyprus' capital city of Nikosia had already been decked out with posters and stickers with the word "Oxi," or "No" -- all calls for voters to reject an upcoming vote on reunification. The country's Greek Orthodox church has already stated its opposition to reunification of the island, which has been divided since Turkey invaded the north in 1974.

Following the failure to reach a deal during talks in Switzerland earlier this week, the destiny of Cyprus now lies in the hands of residents. Greeks and Turks living on the island will go to the polls on April 24 in two separate referendums. The vote will determine whether a united Cyprus joins the European Union on May 1 or whether its 30-year division will continue.

In a strange twist in the long-running story, the most resistance to a reunification plan presented by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is now coming from Greek residents. Only one year ago, it was the Turkish population that had put the brakes on talks over a normalization of the island.

The U.N. plan

UN Friedensgespräche in Zypern
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,Image: AP

Under Annan's plan, separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot states would be created that would be linked by a weak federal government. It would also restrict movement, allowing no more than 18 percent of Greek Cypriots to move into the Turkish-controlled northern half for the first 18 years after reunification. According to the news agency Agence France Presse, close to 180,000 Greeks are seeking to return to their homes in the north. Though the deal has been praised by foreign leaders including United States President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who called it "fair and balanced," Greek Cypriots have criticized it. But European officials are still holding out hope for reunification.

"As you know, it always was, and still is, our preference to welcome a united Cyprus as a member on May 1," European Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Thursday. "We came very, very close to that goal in Switzerland. The process hasn't failed in any way." But now, he said, it is up to the people of Cyprus to decide.

"The alternative doesn't mean this plan or another," he said. "The alternative is to accept this plan or no solution at all. I don't think we'll have another opportunity to go through this again any time in the near future. The demands of the European Union have all been included in the U.N. Secretary-General's proposal."

Greek bishop: 'an obvious injustice'

There is, however, every indication that the referendum faces an uphill battle with the island's Greek population.

Bishop Pavlos, overseas the Greek Orthodox church in the town of Kyreinia, now controlled by the Turkish. The United Nations plan calls for the community to remain under the control of Turkish residents and makes it difficult for Greeks to reclaim land or homes lost during the 1974 invasion. For that reason alone Pavlos says he is against the reunification proposal.

"The church always stands up for freedom and equality and it can't accept this obvious injustice," he said.

Greek Cypriot Archbishop Chisosthomos had even stronger words. "The next thing they'll probably do is make us pay for the costs of the Turkish invasion!"

Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Greek Cypriots oppose reunification, with 70 to 90 percent saying they'll vote "no" in the referendum. One reason is that in the eyes of many Greeks, they have little to gain from reunification. With or without it, Greek Cyprus will become a member of the European Union on May 1 sans the Turkish half of the island. Why make concessions now and then, as the richer part of the island, get stuck footing the bill for reunification?

Turks support plan

The view from the other side of the barbed wire border couldn't be any more different. The Turks have much to gain through reunification. Overnight, an internationally isolated and unrecognized state could become a member of the EU. Though Turkey would be giving up some land, it would also gain political power in a united Cyprus, and the embargo against Turkish Cyprus would be suspended, bringing economic growth.

If Turkish Cypriots vote in favor of reunification on April 24, it will also give Turkey a political boost. For years, Turkey was viewed as the aggressor and occupying force in the Cyprus conflict, often standing in the way of reunification efforts.

Günter Verheugen
Gunter VerheugenImage: AP

"Turkey played a very constructive and cooperative role in the negotiations," European Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen (photo) told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Thursday, just after talks broke off.

If it's Greece that says no this time around, the issue of Cyprus would not likely be used as a reason to further delay the start of European Union accession talks with Turkey.

Still, barriers remain for such accession negotiations. On Thursday, the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted 211-84 to approve a report stating that Turkey has not done enough to fulfill the requirements in human rights and democratization in order for negotiations to start. The report said that discrimination against religious minorities and torture persist in the country and that the army still exerts an unacceptable amount of influence in the political sphere.