From October 10 to October 12, Mehmet Ali Talat, President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), met in Brussels with EU officials to discuss the stalemate over the island, which looms over Turkey's accession negotiations with the EU.
During his three-day visit to the seat of the EU, Talat held talks with the Union's foreign policy chief Javier Solana, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and European Parliament President Josep Borrell. Talat's trip comes at a difficult time for Turkish-EU relations, with negotiations facing a potential standoff over the fulfilment of the so-called Ankara Protocol, the 2005 agreement under which Turkey agreed to extend its customs union with the EU to the bloc's 10 new member states, including Cyprus.
Under the protocol, the EU expects Ankara to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic by the end of the year, a step that the Turkish government holds it will not take until the international isolation of the Turkish Cypriots is ended.
During visits to Turkey last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn both warned that accession talks could grind to a halt if Turkey does not fulfil its obligations under the Ankara Protocol. During a press conference, Merkel stated, "The Ankara Protocol must be applied."
Despite the warning, Merkel also made sure to extend an olive branch during her visit, noting that she believes "this problem can be resolved" through "constructive negotiations". One potential breakthrough to the present stalemate could involve a plan proposed by Finland, the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency. "We now have a Finnish proposal on the table and I have heard with interest that this has been welcomed by Turkey and I hope that we can solve a difficult problem," Merkel said on October 5.
Finland has recently been involved in secret negotiations with Ankara, seeking to find a way forward on the Cyprus issue. While details of the Finnish proposal have not been made public, the plan is widely believed to involve a middle-of-the-road compromise between the two sides of the divided island, with Turkey opening its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic, while the eastern Turkish Cypriot port of Famagusta would be opened to international trade under joint Turkish and Greek Cypriot supervision, possibly with UN or EU involvement. Additionally, the abandoned city of Varosha (Maraþ), once a tourism centre on the island, would be returned to the Greek Cypriots.
Speaking at a press conference, Namik Tan, the Turkish foreign ministry spokesperson, responded to the Finnish plan: "Finland's proposals were examined and our views and questions, as well as points whose inclusion in the package we believe would be useful, were relayed to the other side," Tan said. But, he went on to explain, accession negotiations should not be held hostage to divide over Cyprus. "The important thing is for the negotiating process to be pursued without being poisoned by the Cyprus issue."
During his visit to Brussels, Talat expressed some concern over the Finnish proposal, saying that it contained some "dangerous elements". Talat noted that the international community pledged to lift the isolation of the KKTC after Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of the UN-sponsored Annan plan to reunify the island in 2004, something which has yet to be fulfilled and would only be accomplished through the Finnish proposal in exchange for concessions.
"Lifting of the isolation is not something conditional," Talat said, adding "It is the EU's political responsibility." "If we go to find a solution by a piecemeal approach, we will lose ourselves in that jungle," Talat said. During a press conference in Brussels, he also went on to question whether the EU was really the appropriate forum for the resolution of the island's status. "The EU cannot solve the Cypriot problem," he said, "because the Greek Cypriot state is a member of the EU." "But the EU can play a very crucial role."
Talat's visit to the seat of the EU is an unusual one for a Turkish Cypriot leader, given that the KKTC is not recognised by any member of the international community other than Turkey. Back in July, he met with Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, agreeing to resume talks on the island's status through a two-track framework, with one devoted to day-to-day issues and the other to more complex political matters, including a long-term reunification agreement.
During his meetings with EU officials, Talat petitioned for Turkish Cypriot representation in the European Parliament and other EU institutions, saying, "Our voice is not heard." He also singled out the EU's upcoming November review of Turkey's progress in meeting EU-mandated reforms, which is widely expected to be negative, saying that Turkey's membership bid and the resolution of the island's status were inextricably linked. "If Turkey's European prospect somehow is lost, then a solution to the Cyprus problem will be very difficult," he said. "It is crucial to keep Turkey's European perspective open."