The collapse of the latest attempt to restart the stalled Cyprus peace negotiations has come as a further blow to Turkey’s hopes of reviving its bid for full EU membership.
On December 11, 2006, the EU suspended eight of the 35 policy chapters of Turkey’s accession negotiations, citing Ankara’s continuing ban on allowing ships and planes from the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) to have access to Turkish ports and airports. Under the terms of its Customs Union Agreement with the EU, which came into force on January 1, 1996, Turkey is obliged to allow EU member states full access to its ports and airports. However, Turkey has long refused to recognize the ROC government and remains the only country in the world to recognize the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which has de facto authority over the predominantly Turkish Cypriot northern 37% of the island.
In July 2005, Turkey agreed to lift the ban on ROC ships and planes in order to secure a date for the opening of its own EU accession negotiations in October 2005. However, it has since backtracked and made lifting the ban conditional on a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem. Privately, EU officials acknowledged that it was unrealistic to expect Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to make any concessions in the run-up to the Turkish elections of July 22. However, following the AKP’s landslide victory (see EDM, July 23), EU pressure is likely to intensify in the fall.
On September 5, TRNC President Mehmet Ali Talat met with ROC President Tassos Papadopoulos for the first time in nearly 14 months. On July 8, 2006, the two leaders had agreed on what has become known as the Gambari Process, after UN Undersecretary General Ibrahim Gambari, who brokered the meeting. The Gambari Process included a two-tier approach in which four technical committees would deal with day-to-day issues, while working groups would discuss substantive questions. However, no progress has been made and each side has accused the other of attempting to stall the process.
The recriminations continued after a three-hour meeting on September 5 ended without any agreement. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Talat claimed that he had proposed accelerating the Gambari Process by immediately initiating preparations leading to comprehensive negotiations between the two sides within two months and a settlement to the Cyprus problem by the end of 2008. Talat said that he had also suggested adding a fifth technical committee on the EU to the four originally agreed in July 2006 (Zaman, Radikal, Milliyet, September 6).
However, his proposals were rejected by the Greek Cypriots, who objected to the attempt to impose a time limit and insisted that comprehensive negotiations could not begin until the technical committees and working groups had produced solutions to the issues that currently divide the two sides. Papadopoulos accused Talat of trying to change rather then accelerate the Gambari Process and limit any technical discussions of issues (Zaman, NTV, September 6).
Talat responded by noting that not a single committee had been formed since July 2006. “We wanted to accelerate the process and make it more effective. It is as simple as that,” he said (Zaman, September 6).
The continuing impasse comes at a time when a major confrontation appears to be looming over the exploitation of the natural resources in the sea around Cyprus. The ROC recently invited applications for oil and gas exploration to the south and southwest of the island. Both Turkey and the TRNC have angrily denounced the move. “We should be partners — they cannot utilize the resources of the island without our consent,” said Talat (New Anatolian, September 5).
Turkey has warned that the ROC’s move is unacceptable and that it will not allow the erosion of what it has described as its national interests in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish government has also granted licenses to the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to begin exploratory drilling in the eastern Mediterranean, initially close to the Turkish coast but eventually also off the coast of the TRNC.
Although both the ROC and Turkey are using the dispute as an attempt to assert their political rights, there are also important economic considerations. The ROC, TRNC, and Turkey are all heavily dependent on imports for their energy supplies. The area of the eastern Mediterranean that separates Cyprus from Egypt and Lebanon is currently estimated to contain unexploited reserves of up to 10 billion barrels of oil (New Anatolian, September 5).