Sweden’s Minister for International Cooperation Development, Gunilla Carlsson, has confirmed in a joint article together with Turkey’s Minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bağış, Sweden’s full support for Turkey’s bid for EU membership.
This comes as no surprise, as four years ago Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, declared that “the AKP government is made up of profound European reformers”.
What was also predictable was Ms. Carlsson’s statement at the round table meeting with Mr. Bağış that it was unacceptable to stall Turkey's accession negotiations because of bilateral issues that had nothing to do with the EU itself. This was evidently a reference to the unresolved Cyprus dispute.
When Sweden was term president of the EU in the second half of 2009, the draft of the General Affairs Council conclusions in November noted that “bilateral issues” should not hold up the accession process but needed to be resolved by the parties concerned “bearing in mind the overall EU interests”.
In effect, this relegated the Cyprus issue to the level of the border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, but because of opposition from other EU member states the paragraph was dropped from the Council’s conclusions.
This attempt to sweep the issue under the carpet is reminiscent of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s reference to the Sudetenland conflict in 1938 as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”.
What is notable is that Ms. Carlsson spoke of a struggle to embrace deeply owned common values, as this is precisely the issue that is at stake in Cyprus. In effect, Cyprus can be considered a litmus test as to whether it is possible for two ethnic communities to coexist inside the same national framework, and, on a larger scale, whether Turkey can fit into the European Union.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has accused the European Union of being “a Christian club” but President Gül on his first official visit to Cyprus in September 2007 stated “There are two realities on Cyprus, two democracies, two states, two languages, two religions”, which are the same arguments advanced by opponents of Turkey’s EU membership.
Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974 cemented the division of the two communities but also opened a shameful chapter of Turkish history.
The European Commission of Human Rights in its 1976 report documented the conduct of the invasion forces and the Committee on Missing Persons is working to establish the fate of 502 Turkish Cypriots and 1,493 Greek Cypriots missing after the intercommunal fighting in 1963-4 and the Turkish invasion.
The US Helsinki Commission in its 2009 report on the destruction of cultural property in northern Cyprus documented that 500 Orthodox churches or chapels have been pillaged, demolished or vandalized and 15,000 paintings have disappeared.
Furthermore, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has in its 2012 report recommended that Turkey be designated a “country of particular concern” notwithstanding its importance as a strategic partner. The USCIRF delegation found three main issues in northern Cyprus, including the inability of Orthodox Christians to hold services at their places of worship and the disrepair of churches and cemeteries as well as the preservation of religious heritage.
Egemen Bağış is surely disingenuous when he at the meeting with the Swedish minister criticized the EU for blocking most of Turkey’s accession talks. As he remarked, “They want us to do our homework without actually telling us what our homework is."
Even to Mr Bağış, the solution must be apparent. In 2006 the EU Council froze negotiations on eight chapters because Turkey refused to honour its commitment according to the Additional Protocol and extend the customs union to the Republic of Cyprus. Consequently, a solution to the conflict would remove the main stumbling block to Turkey’s accession process and serve to heal the wounds of the past.
By virtue of its strategic position, and now because of the gas deposits in its Exclusive Economic Zone, Cyprus is a key player in the eastern Mediterranean, and therefore it was short-sighted of Turkey not to invite Cyprus to the Syria meeting in Istanbul on 1 April.
Once again, the European Parliament has called on Turkey to begin withdrawing its forces from Cyprus, to transfer Famagusta to the UN and for the port of Famagusta to be opened under EU supervision, but this call will no doubt fall on deaf ears. Turkey’s threat to boycott Cyprus’ EU Presidency is also counter-productive.
As the European Parliament concluded in its resolution on Turkey’s 2011 Progress Report, the interdependence between the European Union and Turkey can only produce positive results if it is framed in a context of mutual commitment.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.