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Cyprus Elections Leave Turkey's EU Bid in the Balance

  • Dorian Jones

This weekend Turkish Cypriots will go to the polls to elect a new leader. The election comes at a critical time, with ongoing UN-sponsored efforts to reunite the island. But the current Turkish Cypriot leader - who is facing a strong challenger - has warned if he is defeated those talks could fall apart. That is potentially bad news for Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

As voters in the northern half of the island, known as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, go to the polls, its leader Mehmet Ali Talat has warned if he is defeated the current United Nations sponsored reunification talks will grind to a halt.

And, so far, polls show that hardline right-winger Dervis Eroglu is set to sweep to victory. A believer in independence from the rest of Cyprus, Eroglu has staked his claim to the presidency by accusing the incumbent, Mr. Talat of failing in talks with Greek Cypriots aimed at resolving their territorial dispute.

Richard Howitt, the spokesman for the European parliament committee on Turkey, says the reunification talks are not only important for Cyprus but also Turkey's European Union membership aspirations.

"The aspirations for reconciliation on the island of Cyprus are there, currently in the party leaders on both sides of the divide," said Howitt. "The closeness the continuing progress on the Cypriot talks, would suggest that the European Union is not going to pull the plug on Turkey, because that simply would stop hopes of peace and reconciliation on Cyprus, too.

This tiny enclave of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus is not recognized by the United Nations and reluctantly recognized by Turkey. It is the result of a bloody division of Cyprus in 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern part of the island, in response to a military coup that was backed by the Greek government.

Today, the Greek side, which controls two-thirds of the island, wants reunification. But Eroglu supports a two-state confederation, which could negatively impact Turkey's bid to join the European Union.

Turkey started EU entry talks in 2005, but Cyprus has repeatedly used its position in the EU to block the opening of chapters, or areas to negotiate to ensure policies meet EU standards, as a pressure tactic on Ankara.

Another sticking point is pressure by the EU for Turkey to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic, which it has so far failed to do.

The negotiating process, according to political columnist Murat Yetkin, has come to a virtual halt.

"In bureaucratic terms it's going well," said Yetkin. "The committees are working as along as the chapters are opened technocrats on both sides work very well, but in political terms, its idle, it is not going anywhere."

One bright spot, observers say, is Greece's election victory by Prime Minister George Papandreou last year.

In 1999, as Greece's foreign minister, Mr. Papandreou met with his Turkish counterpart, Ismail Cem, to start rapprochement talks.

Since he was elected, efforts have been under way to re-energize that rapprochement process. Earlier this month, the two countries committed themselves to new confidence building measures.

Suat Kiniklioglu, spokesman for the Turkish Parliament foreign affairs committee, expressed hope with the new leadership in Greece.

"We want a resolution to the Cyprus problem, this needs to get out of our way," said Kiniklioglu. "We want to integrate further with the European Union and Cyprus is a problem. But the difference now, is you have a government in Greece that understands this very well; understands that a Turkey inside the European Union, is in Greek interests, rather than Turkey outside the Union."

Observers say with the current reunification talks not only being seen as the best hope for reunification in decades as well as carrying the hopes of Turkey's EU bid, whoever wins this weekend's election in Turkish Cyprus will be aware there are powerful forces behind the continuation of those talks.