December 15, 2004

Greece Drops Bar to Turkey's Europe Bid, but Cyprus Picks It Up

Some excellent reporting from the New York Times which captures the reality of the situation almost completely:

Greece Drops Bar to Turkey's Europe Bid, but Cyprus Picks It Up


Published: December 15, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus, Dec. 14 - It used to be that European politicians could count on Greece and Cyprus to stand in the way of Turkey's aspirations to join the European Union.

From the time Greece became a member in 1981, it raised the issue of Cyprus, divided into Greek and Turkish sides for more than 30 years, as an obstacle to Turkey's membership. The two countries have also quarreled over a constellation of tiny islands in the Aegean Sea, almost going to war over one deserted rock as recently as 1996.

But now, with much of Europe's populace up in arms over the possibility that Turkey may be invited to begin membership talks, Greece has abandoned its role as spoiler. In a sharp turn, it has become one of Turkey's biggest boosters in the negotiations preceding the European Union summit meeting that begins in Brussels on Thursday.

"I think many of our E.U. partners probably would have liked Greece to do their dirty work, the way it was 20 years ago," said Yannis G. Valinakis, the Greek deputy minister of foreign affairs. "Back then, they would hide behind Greece's back and say: 'Oh, those bloody Greeks. They're blocking us again.' "

As Greece has retreated from the fray, tiny Cyprus, with a population under 800,000, has stepped forward.

Leaders in France, Austria and Denmark, among others, have been trying to come up with a way to invite Turkey to start accession talks while signaling to their constituents, where misgivings about absorbing a Muslim country of 70 million people are rife, that the talks might never bear fruit. Cyprus may prove an ally in that effort.

After years spent in the political shadow of Greece, Cyprus became a member of the European Union in May. Now it has a veto, just like the other 24 members of the union.

Any decision on matters as serious as enlargement must be unanimous, and there is growing speculation, in Cyprus and in Brussels, that Cyprus's president, Tassos Papadopoulos, might use his veto to kill Turkey's hopes of starting accession talks if he does not get what he says Cyprus needs.

"Anyone who suggests that he won't use the veto ever, doesn't know him," said James Ker-Lindsay, a political analyst and director of a Cyprus research company called Civilitas. "He's not afraid to be a pariah."

President Papadopoulos originally laid out six conditions for his support for Turkey, including the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the divided island. Turkey, which sent its troops to Cyprus in 1974 after a coup there aimed at merging the island with Greece, has refused to discuss redeploying its troops except in the context of an overall settlement.

But recently the Cypriot leader's conditions have been distilled into a single demand: that membership talks not start until Turkey officially recognizes the Greek Cypriot government as the government of the entire island, as the European Union has done.

"I think our conditions in the whole setup are the most innocent conditions of those put on Turkey by the E.U.," said Kypros Chrysostomides, the Cypriot government spokesman.

Turkish officials have publicly refused the demand, and privately say they would have a hard time selling such a move to their public unless they first get a firm commitment to begin membership talks.

Yet they have become acutely aware that Cyprus can block a European Union consensus - precisely because, unlike other members, Cyprus has no bridges with Turkey that it fears might be burned.

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