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The three paradoxes of the EU’s peacebuilding strategy in Cyprus

Pierre Le Mouel, University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne

Following the failure of the 2004 United Nations (UN) led referendum, the entry of a divided Cyprus into the European Union (EU) has introduced exceptional inconsistencies within the Union's system. As the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) - the only internationally recognised state on the island, except for the British Sovereign Base Areas[1] - joined the EU, the whole island became part of the Community and Northern Cyprus has become the only case of EU territory under military occupation by a foreign power.[2]

The three paradoxes this article will describe entail a complex pattern of contradictions between EU law and its political perspective on the island, or lack thereof. These have weakened the EU’s peacebuilding capacity in regard to intercommunal relations in Cyprus, EU–Turkish Cypriot relations and, finally, also EU–Turkish relations.

This story began in 1974 when, as a result of intercommunal conflict and a double military intervention from Turkey, the island of Cyprus has been cut in half by a demilitarised zone called the Green Line. Administered by the UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), the Green Line currently separates the Greek Cypriots in the south, where the RoC is in control, and the Turkish Cypriots in the north, under Turkish military occupation. Turkish Cypriots organised themselves in 1983 in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a pseudo-state only recognised by Turkey. According to international law, the RoC is the only legitimate authority on the island and the TRNC has no legal existence. The Green Line cannot be considered as anything else than a peace line, even if, de facto, the TRNC considers and administers it as its international border.

Peace talks have been ongoing for the past 45 years. The most significant achievement to date remains the one made by Kofi Annan in the early 2000s. This occurred on the background of the RoC’s candidacy to the EU, which was accepted in 1990. The island was to join in 2004 alongside 9 other countries. In preparation for Cyprus’ accession to the EU, with Turkey strongly in favour, there was a breakthrough in the talks and the Annan Plan for a united federal Cyprus was drawn up and put to a vote in both communities on the 24th of April 2004. It was approved by the Turkish Cypriots, but soundly rejected by the Greek Cypriots.[3]

The EU was then faced with a complex situation: the Turkish Cypriots had clearly demonstrated their willingness to join the EU as a unified country, but the RoC joined the EU still divided. Furthermore, because of Turkey’s military presence in Northern Cyprus, the EU had to suspend the acquis communautaire north of the Green Line, in the area “in which the Government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control[4], thus putting the Turkish Cypriots within the EU’s de jure territory, but outside of the space in which EU laws are applied.

It is within this suspension of the EU acquis communautaire in Northern part of the island that lie the first two EU’s peacebuilding’s paradoxes of Cyprus. First, the Green Line cannot be considered as anything else than a peace line within the RoC’s territory. However, because it marks the limit of the area of implementation of the acquis, it has to be administered for practical reasons as an external border of the EU. In this regard, the EU passed Regulation 866/2004 (also called ‘the Green Line Regulation’), setting the conditions for the passage of goods and people into the EU. This regulation is by nature transitory until the acquis is fully applied into Northern Cyprus. It regularly evolves to let more goods pass through, as Turkish Cypriots implement some EU norms in order to foster more contacts and trust through trade. Nevertheless, this cross-border, peacebuilding strategy is based on applying elements of EU external border policy to an internal peace line that the RoC, tasked with implementing the Green Line Regulation, cannot recognise as an external border.

The first paradox : legally, the Green Line is just a peace line, but the EU has to pragmatically administer it as an external border of the Single Market.

Secondly, before the accession of Cyprus to the EU, the EU Council had set aside 259 million Euros to be spent within the Turkish Cypriot community. This provision was aimed at bringing the northern part of the island to an equal level of development as the south, in preparation for a federal solution. After the failure of the Annan Plan, the Council decided to renew its financial involvement, with the hope to foster a level of community development able to bring closer the two sides of the island. Nonetheless, because the TRNC is not legally recognised, the EU can only officially interact with the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, which was set up before the creation of the RoC. Hence, even if the Commission has contacts with TRNC officials, the RoC is the only recognised administration, and it has the final say in anything related to Northern Cyprus. This also means that the RoC has veto powers on any EU aid given to the Turkish Cypriot community, as well as control over its implementation.

The second paradox : because of the TRNC’s lack of recognition, the EU’s peacebuilding is one-sided as the RoC, a belligerent in the Cyprus conflict, has final say on every EU action in Northern Cyprus.

Finally - and most importantly - the third paradox seems to be connected to a lack of a precise EU peacebuilding goal related to the future of the island. The EU and its member states have always expressed their attachment to a solution to the Cyprus negotiated by the UN in the UN’s framework. This poses two problems. The first is that the UN hasn’t been able to find a solution for the past 46 years. In 2004 the Annan Plan was the furthest any negotiations had gone but the Greek Cypriots had no incentives to accept it as they were about not only to remain in control of the only legitimate state actor according to international law, but also join the EU with or without the Turkish Cypriots. While the Greek Cypriots have recently softened their stance, the negotiations are blocked by Turkish president Erdoğan’s uncompromising attitude towards Cyprus and the EU. The 2018 Crans-Monatana negotiation collapsed when Turkey refused to discuss the withdrawal of its troops from Northern Cyprus, an obligatory step in finding a lasting solution. The second problem with relying solely on the UN to find a solution is that the EU’s concrete peacebuilding efforts aren’t aimed at bringing a European solution to the Cyprus issue, but simply preparing Northern Cyprus for a federal solution. The EU doesn’t control the peace-making even though it’s peacebuilding is designed as a long-term implementation of a solution that still hasn’t been found.

The third paradox : the EU’s peacebuilding strategy is only designed as a preparatory implementation of a peace-making strategy that still hasn’t been successful yet.

From the outset, the EU has proceeded on the grounds that it did not recognise the Turkish-backed TRNC, but only the RoC. This approach was fully aligned with EU and international law and reinforced by the EU and its member states’ adherence to UN peace-making attempts. However, this peacebuilding strategy has found itself stuck in three paradoxes that have stifled effective progress for the past 16 years. The Cyprus issue has to be also considered as a political and geopolitical question that now specifically concerns the EU and its geopolitical actors. The EU has not yet found an effective way to transpose this perspective into consequential policy decisions and peacebuilding operations in a manner that would not violate EU law and would take the process of finding a Cyprus solution to the next level.

In conclusion, the above analysis shows how, after 16 years without much progress, it might be time for the EU to take an active role and to adopt an autonomous peacebuilding strategy to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. This could be based on successful peacebuilding operations managed by the Community in other areas of conflict it has been involved in the past. The case of Northern Ireland is certainly one of the most significant to keep in mind.

[1] Cyprus was a British colony until 1960. When it became independent as the Republic of Cyprus, it had to cede sovereignty over two British military bases: Akrotiri in the south next to Limassol and Dekhelia in the east next to Larnaka. This mimics the Irish Treaty Ports included in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

[2] The Falklands were not part of the EU territory as they were part of the Overseas Countries and Territories of the European Union when they were invaded by Argentina while the United Kingdom was still a member state.

[3] With close to 90% turnout in both communities, the Turkish Cypriots voted 64,91% in favor while the Greek Cypriots voted 75,83% against the Annan Plan.

[4] The official sentence used by the EU in its regulations and in Protocol 10 concerning Cyprus of the 2003 Accession Treaty to describe Northern Cyprus.

Pierre Le Mouel is a Second Year PhD Candidate in Political Geography and Geopolitics at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne

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