Ayla Gürel is a senior research consultant and specialist in the Cyprus conflict at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. She spoke to EurActiv Czech Republic Editor Adéla Denková. The original in Czech can be found here.
The Cypriot presidency of the Council of the EU is often expected to be a “non-traditional” one. What can be the differences in comparison with the presidencies of other, older and bigger member states?
There are several reasons why the Cypriot EU presidency is perceived as “different” in comparison with the others. The Republic of Cyprus is obviously one of the new member states. It is a very small member state with relatively limited capacity to carry out the tasks relevant to EU presidency.
But, more importantly, it is a divided country with a serious political problem. Because of this problem, the government representing Cyprus in the EU is made up of Greek Cypriots only and therefore Turkish Cypriot citizens of the Republic are not represented in the EU at all. On top of that the Republic seems to be bankrupt. Of course, there has been a lot of talk about worries in connection with the Cypriot EU presidency, especially because of its relations, or rather lack of relations, with Turkey and its financial situation.
Do you think that the presidency will be influenced by the recent request for emergency funding from the EU?
I am not in a position to predict future developments but I can imagine what this could mean for the presidency. It is already challenging enough for a small inexperienced country to hold the presidency. And the recent bailout request made things even more difficult, especially because the Republic asked for financial assistance immediately before the presidency. This has made quite a dramatic impression on different players in the EU and influenced their feelings about the Cypriot presidency. The bailout itself may not have a tangible negative impact but it is bound to make things more challenging at the level of impressions.
Cyprus is also seeking a bailout from Russia. This would not be the first time that the country would turn to Moscow for help. Could this have any influence on the presidency if you consider that relations with Russia are sometimes watched alertly in the EU?
Greek Cypriot relations with Russia have always been good. Russia (and the Soviet Union before) has been a supporter of Greek Cypriot positions for example at the platform of the United Nations Security Council and also a kind of a balance-creating element. In the last decades there have been also many economic ties created between the two countries because of Russian investments on the island as well as the converse.
Russia also provided a large loan for the RoC [Republic of Cyprus] at very favourable terms recently.
It seems that now the Republic is looking for another loan from Russia because it could probably get this loan more easily than the bailout from the EU which would come under more painful conditions. That is also the reason why the Republic approached China as well. So it is not only about Russia, but about the RoC trying to find the most favourable way to deal with its financial problems. But both Russia and China would of course like to have any debt paid back and it is a question of whether Cypriot credibility is high enough for this. So it is important from their angle too whether Cyprus is doing enough for improving its economy. Most commentators would say that the current government has not done much yet in this field; on the contrary it has acted in the way that made things worse.
But it is difficult to know whether there are some aspects of Greek Cypriot-Russian relations which can have further influence regarding the EU presidency. The presidency is a temporary event; it is only for a short-period. And, unless some important incident occurs which requires the RoC to tread a thin line between its EU partners and Russia (for example an affair comparable to what happened in 2009 when the Republic captured a Russian ammunition ship heading to Syria and ended up not cooperating with its partners in the EU in dealing with it), I do not think some special Russian influence on the presidency is likely.
Probably the most discussed question is whether the relations with Turkey will have some impact on the presidency. Or on the other hand whether the presidency will have some impact on the relations with Turkey. How do you look at the possibility of the worsening of the mutual relations? Is it possible, when you consider that the two players depend on each other in many ways?
The EU-Turkey relations are as bad as they that can be at the moment. I do not think they can get any worse because, as you mentioned, the two sides are dependent on each other. The Turkish economy is dependent on the exports to the EU market. There is also the question of investments from the EU and structural reforms for which Turkey seems to need the European anchor for. And, conversely, Turkey’s position as a transit country, especially for fossil fuels, is important for the EU. Overall, Turkey is a significant strategic partner in the region from the EU’s point of view, so it has every reason to keep Turkey on board and Turkey has every reason to keep its relations with the EU going as well.
How do you look at the statements by Turkey that it will freeze its relations with the presidency?
The crisis that emerged with the Cyprus EU presidency was expected. Turkey tried to use every tool to influence certain actors in the Union and, for example, asked for postponing of the presidency until the mutual relations are cleared, i.e. the Cyprus problem is resolved. But it could not really get anything out of this. The European system is too rigid to allow any move in this direction, simply because Cyprus is a member state and that is it. Turkey will probably make use of this period to try to convince the EU that Cyprus is a problematic state rather than a good fellow member. But I think they cannot do more than this.
On the other hand, Turkey is happy to go along with the “positive agenda” the EU came up with. This is a kind of substitute for actual accession negotiations. It is an attempt to make progress in the EU-Turkey relations by preparing some of the frozen chapters of the accession talks for the time they would be opened. This is a very important development which shows the efforts of both sides to keep mutual relations as uninfluenced as possible by the presidency crisis as well as other disputes.
Both sides have to play their roles, of course. The players within the EU will have to show their solidarity with Cyprus as a member state. And Turkey has to be somehow condemnatory towards the EU policy. But I think this will stay at the rhetorical level and not go any further. Turkey has emphasised many times that freezing of relations is meant only regarding the presidency but there are lots of other platforms in the EU where the relations will continue, for example with the Commission.
Is the potential EU membership still desired in Turkey or are there some changes in the public opinion?
It is true that there is a growing general hesitation or ambivalence in Turkey about EU membership but this can be a temporary phenomenon. The public opinion is largely affected with all the doubts that have become visible in the EU’s approach towards the potential Turkish membership. This waning enthusiasm in Turkey is only to be expected, especially after Cyprus and France took steps that made the accession talks more difficult.
On top of this there is the important element of the financial crisis in the EU which makes EU membership less attractive than it used to be. It seems that the Turks are economically doing rather better these days. The feeling “we don’t need the EU, but the EU needs us” is becoming stronger among some circles now. On the other hand, there is still around 50% support for the EU membership which is quite high if you consider all of these negative aspects we have talked about.
Could the changes in Turkish approach towards the EU mean that Turkey would look for other strategic partners instead of the Union?
I think that the EU will always be a very important partner for Turkey especially in the economic area. But Turkey is already trying to develop its relations in the region. There has been now a period of stalling because of the problems in the area. Relations with Syria deteriorated and there are also problems with Israel and the uncertainty about the situation in Egypt. But we can also mention good relations with Russia; Turkey will try to sustain its relations with Iran and China and others as well. But none of these is an alternative to the relation with the EU. Turkey is rather trying to keep the relations in balance. After all, the EU is too close and too important to be ignored.