The European Union and Cyprus: The Awkward Partnership

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

As Cyprus is facing tough economic challenges, the forthcoming years will make the relationship between Brussels and Nicosia take its most difficult test yet, writes George Kyris.

George Kyris is Hellenic Observatory and Neapolis University Research Fellow at the LSE. He has researched and published extensively on European Union Politics and Cyprus and has taught in the Universities of Manchester and Warwick. He also writes regularly on his blog on BlogActiv.

"Ten years ago this month, Cyprus signed its EU accession treaty at the Stoa of Attalos under the Athenian sun. As the relations between Cyprus and the EU are put to a test, a look back at history reveals an interesting and often awkward partnership.

Before the application of Cyprus for EU membership in 1990, the EU’s involvement in the island was mostly economic: a custom union between the two sides meant that Brussels did not really involve in the messy politics of the island. What is more, those economic relations were between the EU and the Greek-Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus, which saw no Turkish-Cypriot participation after the gradual division of the country into two territories and administrations during the sixties and seventies.

The application for EU membership was thought to have an important impact on the 'Cyprus issue', the ongoing conflict over the fate of the island: for Greek-Cypriots, EU accession was seen as a 'shield' against potential Turkish military action and a diplomatic advantage, especially given Turkey’s interest to join the EU. At the same time, there was a hope that the benefits of EU accession will increase Turkish-Cypriot motivation for resolution.

And they certainly did. In 2004, the Turkish-Cypriot approval of reunification based on the UN-proposed Annan Plan was hugely triggered by the EU. From the one hand, Ankara pushed for a resolution of the dispute, which was an obstacle to Turkey's road towards the EU (Turkey was already a candidate since 1999). On the other hand, the benefits of European integration appealed to the Turkish-Cypriots, who supported reunification- they only way for them to join the EU as partners to a federal state with the Greek-Cypriots.

Ironically enough, the EU became an important reason for Greek-Cypriots to reject the UN Plan: having safeguarded their accession as the Republic of Cyprus, the EU gave them no motive to contribute to a solution before accession.

As a result, in May 2004, the EU witnessed the most awkward enlargement to date: the accession of a divided country. Indeed, some EU elites have subsequently regretted the decision to allow Cyprus enter the EU regardless of a solution. People in Brussels stood particularly frustrated with the Greek-Cypriots, who they did not support reunification. In the following years, the Greek-Cypriot efforts to use EU membership to secure concessions on the Cyprus issue has not always gone down well with EU partners. At the same time, circles in Brussels has became more sympathetic to the Turkish-Cypriots, who-in practise- remain outside the EU, despite favouring reunification.

Nevertheless, the division has not stopped Cyprus to be a functioning EU member state. The undertaking of the Presidency last year is perhaps the most obvious example of this. But, the remarks of the EU President Van Rompuy at the opening ceremony of the Presidency leave no room for misunderstandings on how controversial the matter continues to be: 'As long as Cyprus is divided, in a way, Europe will be divided'. Indeed, until today, almost half of the country sees no full application of EU law, Turkish-Cypriots do not take part in EU decision-making and  their interaction with Brussels, albeit greater than before, continues to be limited.

The economic crisis puts a new strain in the relationships between the island and the EU. Because, for all the problems that the Cyprus issue has caused to the relationship between the two sides, this is a new and particularly difficult challenge. Once strongly pro-European people, now Greek-Cypriots lose faith in the EU as a result of the painful bailout agreement and the way it was agreed. Interestingly, Turkish-Cypriots are also frustrated with the EU, which, they think, failed to come up to their expectations for many benefits in reward of their pro-Annan vote.

The day after the second bailout agreement, finds relations between Nicosia and Brussels at their lowest point ever. However, this is just one more milestone in the often troubled partnership between the Mediterranean island and the EU. As Cyprus is facing up to tough economic challenges, the forthcoming years will put relationships between the two sides to, perhaps, its most difficult test yet."

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