In light of recent Turkish aggression, calls from the United Nations to resolve the frozen conflict in Cyprus may seem wishful thinking. The “last wall dividing Europe” since the Turkish invasion of 1974 has proven to be one of the most obstinate issues in international relations, with none of the proposed plans through the years being deemed acceptable by both communities on the island — the Greek Cypriots, which comprise 80% of the population, and the Turkish Cypriots, which comprise 20% of the population.
On April 27, an informal UN-backed “5+1” meeting to “determine if common ground exists for a lasting solution” will convene in Geneva. The participants include UN representatives, the two Cypriot communities, and the three “guarantor-powers” since independence in 1960: Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. The UN, UK, Greece, Greek Cypriots, and the international community support a bi-zonal federation with political equality guaranteed for both communities. In contrast, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots are pushing for a two-state solution and official partition of the island.
In order to fully comprehend the current situation, it is crucial to understand the recent developments surrounding the perpetual, yet recently exacerbated, dispute between Cyprus (and Greece) and Turkey. In 2015, rich underwater energy deposits were discovered to the southeast of Cyprus, within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This EEZ was delimited in accordance with international law (United Nations Convention for Law and Sea 1982), in subsequent agreements with its maritime neighbors (Egypt; 2003, Lebanon; 2007, Israel; 2010). Turkey, however, does not recognize these agreements as valid, claiming that Cyprus does not possess an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, with justification that “islands of any size do not have rights in regards to maritime delimitation.” Cyprus is not an uninhabited islet with no economic activity where this reasoning might be tried.
In line with this, Turkey has attempted to (unsuccessfully) sign bilateral agreements with the Eastern Mediterranean countries (Lebanon, Israel, Egypt) that have signed prior internationally legal and recognized agreements with Cyprus, in order to nullify them. These agreements completely ignore any Cypriot EEZ, enticing countries to sign on as they effectively “gain” more territory by excluding any Cypriot rights. In further conflict with international law, these agreements do not even abide geographically as Turkey does not have a coastline facing a large part of the zone. This has led Turkey to sign the illegal “Memorandum of Understanding” with war-torn Libya in 2019 delimiting their respective maritime zones, including a majority of which they have no maritime borders according to international law. A similar analogy would be if France and Libya were to seek a maritime agreement, which disregarded Italy on the premise that Sardinia and Sicily, which lie in between, are islands and therefore possess no EEZ.
This reasoning has been brought up by Turkey also in regards to Greece’s EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. The maritime agreement of 2020, in accordance with international law, delimiting the EEZ between Greece and Egypt is heavily contested by Turkey with no legal basis. Even more alarming, Turkey has challenged the sovereignty of Aegean Islands (many of which are inhabited) with the Turkish “Mavi Vatan” doctrine (Blue Homeland) endorsed by Turkish President Erdogan. In claiming that none of the Greek islands have any maritime rights, Erdogan effectively disputes not only Greek sovereignty, but the integrity of international law and conventions.
Starting in late 2019, Turkey started illegal drillings (accompanied by Turkish warships) for natural gas within the Cyrpiot EEZ — south of Cyprus, where Turkish claims do not make logical sense even if they were to exclude Cyrpiot rights. Not only is this a violation of the Cypriot exclusive rights, but drilling also creates irreparable damage that may even destroy any energy deposit if mishandled. As Cyprus has no comparable military power, it reacted by issuing international arrest warrants for the crew and achieved minor sanctions on the Turkish state oil company executives. Last summer, Turkish drilling intensified within Cypriot waters, and was further continued in the Greek EEZ, which resulted in a 35-day long Greco-Turkish military standoff crisis.
In spite of this, the EU has not yet imposed any substantial sanctions, especially compared to its sanctions on Iran and Russia. Turkish sanctions were one of the primary topics on the agenda of the European Council on March 25, which constituted the 200-year anniversary of the revolution leading to the Greek nation being liberated from the Ottoman Empire. While the council’s response once again resulted in a “stern warning” towards Turkey and a threat for further action if unilateral aggressive behavior continues, the question of European solidarity remains. Will Cypriot and Greek sovereignty, and thus European sovereignty, be defended and respected?
The geopolitical and strategic importance of Cyprus cannot be overstated. If the European Union has any geopolitical ambitions, it cannot let a member-state be bullied. At the junction of Europe, Africa, and Asia, Cyprus provides not only regional stability in an unpredictable and unstable region, but has the potential to act as an important regional energy hub, especially with the recent discovery of hydrocarbon deposits. Regional players such as Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have realized the importance of Cyprus (and Greece) as a counterweight to Turkish aggression, signing multiple defense, energy, trade, and industry agreements.
Given the current context, the UN-led April meeting will not be lacking in tension. Four years since the last talks, the situation has arguably significantly deteriorated since. The newly elected “president” of the Turkish Cypriot community, Ersin Tatar, is a hardcore proponent of a two-state solution alongside Erdogan.
The United States, though not an official participant, is a key influence on all parties involved. The Biden administration is significantly more assertive than its predecessor vis-a-vis Turkey concerning human rights and international law. Amongst other things, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently criticized Turkish airspace violations of Greek airspace, which occur on a daily basis.
The UK’s latest vision for a “Global Britain” following Brexit revitalizes its interest in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it has been largely absent. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, visited Cyprus last month reiterating the UK’s stance, in addition to condemning Turkey’s recent actions of violating Cyprus’ sovereignty by illegal drilling in its EEZ and illegally “opening” the ghost-town of Varosha, which violates multiple UN Resolutions (902, 550, 789). Thus, the UK has the capacity — and responsibility — to play a significant mediating role in any resolution.
Barring any surprises, it is unlikely that the meeting will alleviate any tension. Yet, the calls from the UN are correct — the dialogue must be kept alive. There is no easy solution, especially given the international 40-year complacency allowing the situation to persist and gradually deteriorate. Any first steps must insist on the expression of Cypriot exclusive sovereign rights, upholding international law, and the curbing of Turkish aggression — through targeted sanctions if necessary.
Reunification of the island encompassing a strong and fair constitution that guarantees robust institutions — to avoid becoming an unstable zonal federation like Bosnia and Herzegovina —may seem like a distant dream to many. Yet, as Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the most celebrated Greek writers proclaimed: “Only by means of hope can we attain what is beyond hope.”