Cyprus sidelined as Brussels scrambles to save Turkey migrant deal
The European Commission has put new pressure on Cyprus in a bid to meet Turkish demands for quicker integration into the Brussels lawmaking machine.
After convincing Nicosia earlier this year to soften its opposition to Ankara’s EU membership bid in order to secure a deal with Turkey on stemming the flow of refugees into Europe, the Commission is now reviving long-frozen Turkish requests for participation in European rule-making bodies on issues such as maritime safety and industrial standards certification.
Diplomats said Cypriots have raised objections in several EU meetings over the last two months to the Commission’s efforts, which could lead to Turkish officials having input on European policy even though it is not an EU member.
The behind-the-scenes push is part of what many see as an effort by Brussels to appease Turkey in order to keep the fragile deal on migration in place. In addition to a promise to move forward on Turkey’s application for EU membership, the agreement includes controversial plans to grant visa-free travel in Europe for Turkish citizens. Critics have complained that the Commission is pushing aside concerns about the Turkish government’s authoritarian rule.
Nicosia is also concerned that the push reflects a weakening of support in the Commission for Cyprus’ bid to normalize relations with Turkey. Ankara refuses to recognize the EU country and has maintained trade sanctions against it since the 1980s. This means Cypriot aircraft cannot enter Turkish airspace and commercial vessels with a Cypriot link of any kind are banned from entering Turkish ports.
In protest over Turkey’s trade embargo, Cyprus in 2009 blocked several areas of negotiation on Turkey’s EU membership, known as “chapters.” However, during a tense summit in March on the EU-Turkey migration deal, Cyprus agreed to the opening of a new, uncontroversial chapter — on the budget.
Cypriot diplomats said the Commission had agreed to Turkish demands to go further and open one of the chapters blocked by Cyprus, which include energy, justice and education. But the Cypriot government refused on the grounds that Turkey “has not even made a gesture” towards dismantling the trade embargo, according to the diplomats.
The Commission has also riled Cyprus by reviving Turkish requests for inclusion in decision-making bodies. These include Ankara’s long-frozen application for EU recognition of Turkish Lloyd, a classification and industrial certification society for shipping and industry that was previously not considered to have met Europe’s high safety criteria.
That request from Turkey, as well as its stalled bid to join the Paris Memorandum of Understanding, a shipping safety body, were discussed at an April meeting of national governments chaired by the Commission’s directorate-general for mobility and transport. Turkey’s membership of the Paris Memorandum has been on hold for the last eight years, but the discussion was seen as boosting it. Minutes of the meeting show participants also discussed the potential “participation” of Turkey in an EU agency, the European Maritime Safety Agency.
No official link between the Turkish requests and the migrant deal was made at the meeting, but the connection was nevertheless “obvious,” according to a diplomat who attended. “Cyprus raised questions in a very diplomatic way, without saying they were actually opposed,” the diplomat said.
Commission transport spokesman Jakub Adamowicz said the April meeting was part of a series of “informal, non-binding exchanges of view.” Maja Kocijancic, Commission spokeswoman for enlargement negotiations, said that despite the decision to “reinvigorate” Turkey’s EU membership talks, there had been “no change” in the executive’s support for Cyprus.
The road to membership
For Turkey, integration into European decision-making is a natural step on the road to EU membership. Non-EU members including Norway already sit on the board of the European Maritime Safety Agency, while Montenegro, another accession candidate, is on the path to membership of the Paris Memorandum. Turkey already cooperates closely with the EU as part of a customs union, thereby fulfilling some of the accession criteria.
The Commission’s promotion of Turkey’s interests puts Cyprus in a tight spot. Nicosia has a veto on Turkey’s EU accession bid, but to stop Ankara’s prior integration into the technical bodies it would need allies.
The same applies to visa liberalization. During a May meeting of EU interior ministers, Cyprus’ Socrates Hasikos demanded Turkey meet all conditions, including cooperation between justice authorities, Europol and the Turkish police, before visa-free travel was granted.
“Cyprus is ready to participate constructively in discussions on the liberalization of visas for Turkish nationals only when they have fulfilled all the criteria,” he said, according to a report by the Cyprus News Agency. In reality, however, Cyprus has no veto over visa liberalization because it is subject to qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers.
The visa liberalization issue has proved the real sticking point in the survival of the EU-Turkey migration deal; the European Parliament has insisted that Ankara meet all of the necessary criteria for obtaining it, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has refused to budge on one of the key provisions, a required change to the country’s anti-terrorism legislation.
Cypriot politicians have put on a brave face as the tide turns against them. They have until now publicly refrained from accusations of abandonment by Brussels. Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said in early May there was no link between visa-free travel for Turks and the “Cyprus problem,” which dates back to a Turkish invasion and occupation of around a third of the island in 1974.
Cyprus has more chance of obtaining Turkish recognition with the Commission’s support, but the tiny Mediterranean island packs a small punch in Brussels — as was evident when its concerns were largely overruled in the March summit when the EU-Turkey deal was approved.
Justin Stares is editor of maritimewatch.eu
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