The fifth South EU Summit, hosted on January 29th in the divided capital of Nicosia, Cyprus, resulted in the seven government leaders – of France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta – releasing a statement that largely backed Cyprus – to the ire of Turkey. Despite reaffirming “the importance of the EU relations with Turkey”, the SEUS called on Ankara “to normalise its relations with the Republic of Cyprus”, whose legal status has been the cause of an international dispute since 1974. In a clash with the European Union, Turkey does not recognise the Greek-Cypriot administration – led by President Nicos Anastasiades – as the legal representative of the whole of Cyprus.
In response to the South EU Summit, Turkey released a brief statement, rejecting the SEUS recommendations and reiterating its stance on Cyprus. “Turkey remains committed to taking the necessary steps to protect the legitimate rights and interests of the Turkish Cypriots”, the declaration said.
Greece and Turkey have overcome heavy collisions over the past forty years. Yet, days after the tense words following the South EU Summit, Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, and Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan, met in Ankara for approximately two hours to discuss moving forward on the resolution of the ‘Cyprus issue’, as well as other concerns, including terrorism, security in the Aegean, and a group of Turkish soldiers that fled to Greece following the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey.
Both leaders agreed to keep open “channels of dialogue”.
“Before both sides sit down for a new negotiation period, we must establish a joint road map”, Erdogan commented. Tsipras noted that the countries must agree to a series of preliminary meetings to discuss solutions for Cyprus, in particular. “We discussed the need for a just and viable solution to the Cyprus problem in the framework of UN resolutions. A solution that will be a benefit to all of the Cypriot people, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and creates a reunited, federal Cyprus, a regular country in the area and the EU,” he said.
Previously, the two leaders met in July,2018 when Erdogan visited Greece, soon after his re-election. Tsipras is set to face elections in Greece in late 2019, and this trip is expected to bolster his image back home. Both nations could also benefit from improved economic ties: Greece has been struggling to get out from under austerity, and Turkey has suffered double-digit inflation along with a currency collapse.
The meeting did not result in any new agreement, and it’s prime result was only an increase in goodwill. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate goodwill in a region rife with political instability. The readiness of the two leaders to engage in dialogue is a positive development likely to relieve tensions in the region. “No issue has been resolved but at least we have a dialogue,” said Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, director of the Centre for International and European Studies, at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.
“We believe every problem could be resolved through dialogue,” Erdogan said at a news conference. Tsipras also said “more concrete steps” could follow in the future. During their meeting, the heads of state cleared the air on a number of ongoing issues.
Erdogan stressed that he wanted more cooperation from Greece regarding the repatriation of soldiers linked to the failed 2016 coup. Before Tsipras’ arrival, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported that the Turkish Interior Ministry had added 74 officers to the list of people wanted for alleged roles in the failed coup – including the 8 soldiers who escaped to Greece in a military helicopter (they have since denied involvement). Turkey is offering 4 million Turkish lira for their capture.
“Our expectation from Greece is that it doesn’t become a safe haven where FETÖ, PKK, DHKP-C terrorists take refuge”, Erdogan said during a joint news conference with Tsipras in Ankara.
Giorgos Koumoustakos, a Greek opposition lawmaker with the New Democracy party, who is responsible for foreign affairs, accused Turkey of a “new provocative move” to undermine Tsipras’ visit, by offering a bounty on those Greece had granted asylum to.
“Of course, coup-plotters are not welcome in Greece”, Tsipras responded, though he also stressed that he had to respect the decision of the Greek courts that ruled against extraditing the Turkish servicemen.
The European refugee crisis is a political flashpoint for many European states, especially in the Mediterranean. Greece has accused Turkey of failing to restrict the number of refugees who cross into Europe, despite Turkey’s 2016 deal with the EU to stem the tide. In return, Erdogan used a news conference with Tsipras to accuse the EU of not meeting its obligations, referring to the acceptance of 72,000 Syrian refugees that had departed from Turkey.
“We did and will fulfil obligations, including the readmission agreement. However, we see that the EU can’t apply the agreement properly”, said Erdogan.
In response, an EU official said the refugee agreement “continues to deliver thanks to the close cooperation between the EU, its Member States and Turkey.” EU Members have taken over nearly 20,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey, said the unidentified official.
Both Greece and Turkey do agree, however, that the overcrowding number of refugees in the Aegean remains a pressing issue that needs better cooperation to achieve stronger results, ideally with additional EU aid.
Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey continue to be at loggerheads concerning gas exploration in Cypriot waters. Turkey insists that exploring gas reserves off the Cypriot coast violates the rights of Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. That is because the gas reserves are in areas contested not only by Turkey, but also Israel and Lebanon. Most of the Eastern Mediterranean states have thus far depended on gas imports to meet their energy needs, but new offshore gas deposits offer the tempting lure of self-sustainability, and even the potential to export gas supplies to the European market.
The joint declaration by the South EU Summit states expressed solidarity with the Republic of Cyprus. “We express our full support and solidarity with the Republic of Cyprus in exercising its sovereign rights to explore, exploit and develop its natural resources within its EEZ, in accordance with EU and international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”, the declaration said.
While the EU supports Cyprus’ right to explore hydrocarbon reserves offshore, Turkey sees the exploratory activities as another violation of both the “inalienable rights” of Turkish Cypriots and its good intentions, demanding a stop to Greek Cypriot exploration efforts until the Cyprus issue has been resolved. Indeed, Turkey was planning to begin drilling around Cyprus to search for hydrocarbon reserves – a move that is likely to upset Greece in return.
“It should not be forgotten that the main reason for the failure of the Cyprus Conference in 2017, was the Greek Cypriot side’s intransigent mentality, considering themselves as the sole owner of the island and the Turkish Cypriots as a minority”, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said, adding that “the fact that in the joint declaration there is no mention of the legitimate rights of the Turkish Cypriots on the natural resources of the island, proves the persistence of this distorted mentality.”
Soon after the meeting, Tsipras visited the Halki seminary on an island off of Istanbul, an Orthodox seminary that has remained closed since 1971, despite international calls for Turkey to allow its reopening. Tsipras is the first serving Greek Prime Minister to visit the seminary in the last 90 years.
First opened in 1844, the seminary was closed down when Turkey’s constitutional court ruled that private colleges operating in military or religious education must be affiliated with a state-run university. As the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Istanbul refused to accept subordination to the state, the seminary has remained closed ever since.
The closure of the school is indirectly linked to the rights of the Turkish minority community in northern Greece, as well as the construction of a mosque in Athens. Erdogan said that Turkey was prepared to reopen the seminary if Greece took steps to improve the rights of this Muslim group. Currently, under the terms of the Lausanne Peace Treaty, Greek Orthodox in Istanbul are allowed to elect their own religious leaders (presently, it is Patriarch Bartholomew I). However, the ethnic Turks in western Thrace are not allowed the same liberties, as the Greek state appoints a mufti for them. In 1990, the elected mufti of Xanthi, Mehmet Emin Aga, was arrested on the grounds of usurping the title of the state-appointed mufti.
Cyprus – Moving Ahead
In the wake of the good will established by this meeting, Cyprus President, Nicos Anastasiades, is also set to make his own informal overtures to both Turkey and Northern Cyprus when he meets with Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, on February 26th.
“The goal is to resume negotiations from the point they were left off. And of course, the six parameters submitted by the Secretary-General should serve as a guide”, he said.
To that end, Anastasiades will propose drafting a document detailing both sides’ agreements and disagreements relating to the ‘Cyprus issue’, as a basis for the meeting. The Cyprus News Agency cited unnamed sources, who said there was a need “to record the convergences, draft a document, and sit down to discuss in a methodical manner.”
The Turkish side is also expected to submit their positions in writing regarding the six parameters of the Guterres framework – though they refuse to negotiate on the issue of political equality. Both sides are expected to bring concrete proposals to the table, particularly regarding Anastasiades’ ideas regarding decentralisation as part of a future peace settlement.
UN envoy, Jane Holl Lute, is facilitating the leaders’ drawing up terms of reference for new talks, and has left Cyprus to discuss the issue with the guarantor powers – Greece, Turkey, and the UK.
It may be the dawn of a final peace settlement for Cyprus.