EU leaders welcomed today (11 February) the resuming of peace talks in divided Cyprus, in a fresh attempt to end one of Europe's most enduring conflicts and a decades-old obstacle to Turkey's hopes of joining the European Union.
Leaders of the island's rival Greeks and Turks are due to meet in no-mans-land, at an airport compound in the capital Nicosia that was abandoned in past fighting and is now used as a base for the United Nations peacekeeping force. It will be their first formal encounter for almost 18 months.
Nicos Anastasiades, president of the internationally recognised Cypriot government, and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervi? Ero?lu will mandate a U.N. envoy to read out a joint statement outlining the basic principles that should govern a settlement.
They will then leave their aides to negotiate the minutiae of any deal in a process which could take months, aimed at healing the split between the two sides caused by war in 1974.
"I do not only wish [Tuesday] will be the start of a process which yields results, but I am also vowing that I will work towards this," Kudret Ozersay, the Turkish Cypriot chief negotiator, said on Twitter.
The President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy issued a statement, welcoming the agreement by the leaders of the two communities to resume talks.
The European Commission is keen to play its part in supporting the negotiations, conducted under UN auspices and to offer all the support the parties and the UN find most useful, the statement reads.
Accordingly, Barroso will send a personal representative, and in parallel, the European Commission will step up efforts to help the Turkish Cypriot Community prepare for implementation of the acquis. Although the entire island of Cyprus is considered EU territory, EU legislation doesn’t apply on the Turkish-controlled North, which doesn’t benefit either from EU funds.
Cyprus's partition is a headache for the European Union. The island is represented in the EU by its Greek Cypriots, with veto-wielding rights over Turkey's wish to join the bloc.
Turkey invaded Cyprus's north in 1974 after a Greek inspired coup. It provides political and financial support to a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state there.
Endless rounds of talks have failed to make headway on attempts to unite Cyprus as a union of two autonomous regions with one central government.
"It's a good text … it certainly helps set the direction [of talks] and that can only be a good thing," one diplomat told Reuters, referring to the joint statement outlining the principles of a deal.
But a junior partner in Anastasiades's centre-right coalition, the centrist Democratic Party, says the text is unbalanced in Turkey's favour and has said it could quit the government over the issue.
"The Turkish side achieves most of its long-standing ambitions, before talks have even started," said party Chairman Nicholas Papadopoulos, son of the late Tassos Papadopoulos, a former president who rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint in 2004.
The threat is to a government which brokered a painful international bailout last year, staving off bankruptcy, and it could complicate an EU and IMF-directed economic reform programme that Cyprus has undertaken in return for €10 billion in aid.
Analysts, however, said the impact to the bailout if the party did quit the government would be minimal.
"If they do quit the coalition they won't mess up the MOU too much," said British economist Fiona Mullen, referring to the economic adjustment programme. "Because [if they did] they will get blamed for the collapse of the economy."
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 despite repeated efforts under the auspices of the UN to bring the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to the negotiating table.
Hopes for reunification were raised in 2002 when then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested a two-part federation with a rotating presidency.
In an April 2004 referendum, the Greek Cypriots rejected - and the Turkish Cypriots approved - a UN-sponsored unity plan. The plan's failure disappointed EU officials, who had agreed to allow Cyprus to join the EU that year partly in the hope that doing so would encourage a solution. In May 2004, the Greek Cypriot-controlled Republic of Cyprus became a full member of the EU.
At their December 2004 summit, EU leaders agreed to open accession talks with Turkey on 3 October 2005. One of the conditions specified was for Ankara to extend a 1963 association agreement with the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community, to the Union's 10 new member states. This group included the Greek Cypriot state, which is not recognised by Turkey.
In July 2005, Turkey signed a protocol extending its customs union to the EU-10 states, but at the same time Ankara issued a declaration saying that its signature did not mean it had recognised the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey also refused to open its ports and airports to Cyprus, as it claims the EU has fallen short of having direct trade with the unrecognised northern part of the island.