As more bodies piled up in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, news from the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus reminded newspaper readers that not all Middle Eastern (or quasi-Middle Eastern) quarrels necessarily involve Arabs.
On Saturday, the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus voted on a U.N. plan that would have reunified the island (it’s been divided since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded following an Athens-sponsored coup) as it prepares to enter the European Union on May 1. The Greek-led government will represent Cyprus in Brussels, but Turks will be allowed to receive Cypriot passports and vote for the European Parliament. Both communities had to approve the U.N. plan, but this wasn’t to be. The Turkish Cypriots, whose makeshift state the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey, approved the plan (65 percent said “yes”), seeing it as way of partaking of EU-induced prosperity. However, the island’s majority Greeks rejected it (76 percent voted “no”), in part because they did not want to foot the hefty bill of reintegration but also because they mistrust Turkish intentions.
A correspondent of Lebanon’s Daily Star reported on one reaction in Nicosia, the capital: ” ‘We want a Cyprus for Cypriots; real Cypriots and no one else,’ [a Greek Cypriot] said in reference to the estimated 115,000 mainland Turkish settlers who have poured into the northern half of the island since … 1974.” But a commentator in the Cypriot English-language Cyprus Mail, published on the Greek side, voiced unhappiness with the result, writing of the government’s push for a “no” vote: “What we have witnessed—the intimidation, the brazen lies, the manipulation, the bias, the chauvinism, the abuse of state authority for blatant political purpose—is disturbing evidence of just how shallow our democracy has been.” In an editorial, an English-language Turkish newspaper, the Turkish Daily News, sounded the theme of the day, noting the Turkish Cypriots had “clearly voted for reconciliation, peace and goodwill. … Now Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots have to be rewarded by the international community for all this.”
The Turks had much to celebrate. Ankara encouraged a “yes” vote to show flexibility on the Cyprus imbroglio (where Turkey had once been considered the main impediment) but also to improve its chances of entering the EU. Turkey hopes that next December it will be offered a date to commence accession negotiations, and the Cyprus referendum may have made that inevitable. Certainly, Brussels reacted with startling bitterness to the Greek rebuff. London’s Guardian noted, “EU leaders are furious at the Greek Cypriots” and quoted Chris Patten, the EU’s external affairs commissioner, as saying the Greek Cypriots had been guilty of “betrayal,” by using their support for reunification to leverage their way into the EU, only to reverse themselves when membership became imminent. “They’re not going to be a popular addition to the family,” huffed Patten.
London’s Daily Telegraph repeated those fighting words, though the paper also placed considerable blame on the EU itself: “The rejection by Greek Cypriots of the UN reunification plan was disappointing, mean-minded and wholly predictable. The moment the EU decided it would accept a unilateral application from Southern Cyprus, rather than insisting on an internal solution as a precondition for admission, it took away any incentive from the Greek side to compromise.”
How will the EU respond? According to the Guardian, EU foreign ministers “are poised to lift the economic embargo of the Turkish Cypriots, approve a [$307 million] aid package for the north, and allow tariff-free entry of fruit and vegetables into the EU.” France’s Le Monde observed that the United States, too, asked that the sorry plight of the Cypriot Turks be alleviated (the average annual income of Greek Cypriots is around $19,000, while Turkish Cypriots earn less than $3,000), and went on to quote a political commentator Senem Aydin, who raised an interesting ambiguity in Cyprus’ status. As of May 1, the Green Line dividing the Greek south from the Turkish north will effectively become a passage into Europe. This, Aydin noted, meant the line was “a de facto frontier and, therefore, that the Greek Cypriots do not represent the entire island.” He had a point, but it was not one many wanted to play up. Everything about the U.N. plan for Cyprus and, particularly, the island’s entry into the EU under Greek direction, was supposed to deny that the Greek and Turkish sides were separate entities.
In its roundup of the Cyprus vote, the Scotsman probably best articulated what lies ahead for Europe: “The long-standing Cyprus problem, which has brought NATO partners Turkey and Greece to the verge of war on two occasions, will now be ‘imported’ into the EU with all its attendant complexities and emotions.” Judging from the tenor of Patten’s statements, this has already started.