Cypriot red lines threaten EU-Turkey summit deal
By Eric Maurice
Talks between the EU and Turkey on reducing the flow of migrants could fall foul of an old dispute with Cyprus, putting in doubt the outcome of the summit on Thursday and Friday (17-18 March).
Relationships between Turkey and Cyprus, the peace process in Cyprus - an island half occupied by Turkish forces, as well as Turkey's status as an EU associated state and potential member will be on the EU leaders' table, making an agreement even more difficult.
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After visits to Cyprus and Turkey on Tuesday, European Council president Donald Tusk admitted that there was "a catalogue of issues that we need to address together if we are to reach an agreement".
"This is not an easy task, and we have to get it right. It is clear that there is still hard work to be done," he said.
Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades said he would block any deal that involved new talks on Turkey's accession to the EU if Turkey refused to recognise Cyprus.
"Cyprus does not intend to consent to the opening of any chapters if Turkey does not fulfil its obligations," Anastasiades said after meeting Tusk in Nicosia.
Turkey 'not the only pillar'
Cyprus has been blocking chapters on issues such as energy, security, and justice and human rights after Turkey denied access of Cypriot ships to Turkish ports and refused to honour its obligations towards Cyprus in the EU-Turkey custom union.
In the plan discussed since a summit on 7 March, Turkey would be ready to take back migrants from Greece but asked for an acceleration of the visa liberalisation process and the opening of new accession chapters, which are those blocked by Cyprus.
"It is unwarranted, counter-productive and not to mention unacceptable to shift the burden of responsibility for the migration crisis on my shoulders, or on the shoulders of the Republic of Cyprus,” Anastasiades said.
Tusk, who last week was sidelined when Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu presented the surprise plan he had designed with German chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch PM Mark Rutte, appeared to support the Cypriot position.
"No third country can ever be more important to me than any of our member states," he said.
He added that Turkey was "an important pillar of our common and comprehensive European strategy" but warned that "it is never wise to build a plan on one pillar only".
Germany, the main target of Anastasiades and Tusk's remarks, played down Cypriot concerns. Its EU affairs minister Michael Roth said in Brussels that opening chapters was "not about political concessions" and that talks with Turkey should "continue".
In addition to its recognition by Turkey, Cyprus also warned that the debate could harm peace talks on the island.
“Turkey’s demand to open accession chapters does not contribute positively to the Cyprus settlement efforts," the Cypriot foreign affairs minister Ioannis Kasoulides said before a meeting in Brussels.
He implied that a breakthrough in the talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, where Turkey has a role to play, would ease talks on Turkey's EU membership.
"Everybody should be patient until the solution of the problem of Cyprus and then the chapters will be automatically unblocked," he said.
'Critical mass' reached
Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, also made the link between the two discussions.
"We need an intelligent synchronisation of these processes," he said after the EU ministers meeting.
“It is up to president Tusk, the Cypriot governments, Greek and Turk, and leaders together to make a positive step on this at the end of this week.”
Another issue dividing EU members is visa liberalisation for Turkey.
EU and Turkish leaders agreed on 7 March to accelerate the process to lift visa requirements for Turks travelling to the Schengen area by the end of June.
Several EU countries, including France and Austria, have expressed concerns that conditions attached to the process would be watered down in order to give Turkey satisfaction.
But according to Reuters news agency, the European Commission is about to say that Turkey has already met the "critical mass" of the legal conditions, clearing the path for a visa waiver.
The commission's proposal, as well as its legal assessment of the plan to send migrants and refugees back to Turkey will be presented on Wednesday.
In the afternoon, EU ambassadors are due to meet to work on the EU summit conclusions and EU-Turkey plan.
But the most political issues will be left for leaders on Thursday and Friday. EU diplomats already warned that the summit will be very long.