By Martti Ahtisaari, Emma Bonino, Albert Rohan, and Nathalie Tocci
The Greek crisis may seem unending, but there are hints that a problem festering in Europe for far longer – the division of Cyprus – may be moving toward resolution.
For the first time since 2004, there is a fragile alignment of the political stars over the eastern Mediterranean. As the Middle East continues to unravel and European unity grows increasingly fragile, the opportunity to put an end to the conflict in Cyprus is one that Europe cannot afford to ignore.
There has been little reason for optimism during the decade that has passed since the last serious attempt to overcome the island’s division. The proposal in 2004 by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would have united the island by creating a federation of two states. But while Turkish Cypriots embraced the so-called Annan Plan, Greek Cypriots rejected it in a referendum one week before the Republic of Cyprus entered the European Union.
Since then, repeated attempts at relaunching the peace process have ended in failure. Incentives for resolving the conflict rarely emerged, and invariably on only one side or the other, but not both. And, while hope for a solution was dim, the risk of escalation remained low; thus, as security concerns flared up elsewhere, the 40-year-old conflict largely disappeared from the international agenda.
In 2008, there was an attempt to revive the peace effort, after the moderate Demetris Christofias replaced Tassos Papadopoulos as the Greek Cypriot president; but the process soon lost steam. In 2014, the discovery of vast energy reserves in the waters between Cyprus and Israel led some to hope that peace would soon be at hand; but the potential energy bonanza ended up aggravating tensions. Last fall, Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades called a halt to the peace process, citing Turkish brinkmanship over rights to gas exploration.
This time, it is a political development on the Turkish side that has improved the outlook for peace. The election in April of Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci has brought a breath of fresh air to the island. Akinci, a former leftist mayor of northern Nicosia, known for his steadfast commitment to peace in Cyprus, immediately brought about a change in the relationship between the two communities.
Anastasiades had, in 2004, campaigned in favor of the Annan Plan, and Akinci’s election seems to have reawakened his counterpart’s desire for an accord. Over the last few months, the two leaders have agreed on a package of confidence-building measures, including two new crossing points along the Green Line that divides the island; improved mobile, radio, and electricity connections; and mechanisms for business and cultural cooperation. In an unprecedented move, the two presidents, strolled together in Nicosia’s old town, crisscrossing the Green Line. Above all, they vowed to resume peace negotiations.
When talks resumed in earnest in May, both presidents were directly involved, their participation having been facilitated by UN Special Adviser on Cyprus Espen Barth Eide. Anastasiades and Akinci are committed to reaching an agreement within months, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called on them to forge an accord by the end of 2015.
To be sure, there is no guarantee that a deal will be struck. Plenty of details remain to be hammered out. The agreement is likely to entail greater territorial adjustments than were called for under the Annan Plan, as well as modernized security guarantees, a phasing out of settlement and property restrictions, and clearer and more decentralized governing arrangements. But, though the negotiations will be tough, even the conflict’s most hardened observers recognize that peace may now be within reach.
The European Union has repeatedly expressed its support for the UN process and its readiness to accommodate the terms of an agreement within the acquis communautaire (the body of EU law). The EU’s commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, Christos Stylianides, a Greek Cypriot, staunchly backs reconciliation. And the EU leadership has made clear its enthusiasm for a deal; when Akinci visited Brussels in early July, he was welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk, European Parliament President Martin Schultz, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, and the EU’s neighborhood and enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn.
Peace in Cyprus would be a strategic game changer for Europe, opening the possibility for the rapid revival of Turkey’s accession process, which has been largely stalled as a result of objections by the Republic of Cyprus. With Turkey facing political uncertainty following its general election in June, it is important to re-anchor the country to the EU.
And yet, as critical as the EU’s relationship with Turkey may be, bringing peace to Cyprus would have even greater resonance across the continent. At a time when headlines are dominated by talk of Greece or the United Kingdom leaving the EU, knocking down the last remaining wall in Europe would remind all Europeans of the importance and necessity of integration. And for the island’s eastern neighbors, plagued by unspeakable violence, an accord would serve as a demonstration that the demons unleashed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire can be peacefully put to rest.
Martti Ahtisaari is former President of Finland and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Emma Bonino is former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the founder of the international NGO No Peace Without Justice. Albert Rohan is former Secretary-General of Austria’s foreign ministry. Nathalie Tocci is Deputy Director of the Institute for International Affairs and Special Adviser to the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
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A New Chance for Cyprus