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12° Nicosia,
25 June, 2024
 
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Lost promises, missed chances: Secrets behind Cyprus' EU entry

Gunter Verheugen's eye-opening truths on trust, betrayal, and the Cyprus conundrum

Marina Economides

Marina Economides

In an exclusive interview with Kathimerini's Marina Economidou, Gunter Verheugen sheds light on the intricacies of negotiations surrounding the Cyprus problem at Burgenstock. "I fully trusted Glafkos Clerides, and I believe that if he had been in power, we would have reached a solution. Except that his term of office ended, and we had Tassos Papadopoulos, who had a different view and was clear on the whole issue," reveals the former EU Enlargement Commissioner. Verheugen's reflections come on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the Annan Plan referendum, offering a candid account of the background, events, and outcome that led Cyprus to join the EU without resolving the longstanding Cyprus problem. Join us as Verheugen unveils the complexities of the negotiations and shares why he felt disillusioned with the final result.

''I fully trusted Glafkos Clerides, and I believe that if he had been in power, we would have reached a solution.'' -Verheugen

Q: In 2004, after the rejection of the Annan Plan by the Greek Cypriot side, you declared yourself deceived by the Cypriot government and by extension by Tassos Papadopoulos. Was there any prior commitment to support the Plan?

A: Yes and no.

Q: Meaning?

A: We would have to start in 1999. The situation at that time was particularly complicated as several EU member states expressed the view that Cyprus' accession could not take place without a prior resolution of the Cyprus problem. Among these countries was Germany. With the change of government in Germany, its position on Cyprus also changed. I said at the time that we should act in reverse. That is, to press Turkey that we are willing to accept Cyprus within the EU if Greece and the Greek Cypriots are constructive and cooperative in trying to find a solution. And the reality is that before 1999 everybody thought that Turkey was the problem. Nobody thought that the Greek Cypriots would have a problem. So the question was how to make Turkey understand that it would be in its interest to accept Cyprus' membership in the EU without a prior solution to the Cyprus problem.

It was certainly not in Turkey's interest to see the Republic of Cyprus join the EU as an EU member state without a solution to the Cyprus problem, because in such a scenario the Greek Cypriots could block Turkey's EU ambitions once and for all. The solution was to give Turkey candidate status, with a strong incentive to solve the Cyprus problem. However, the political circumstances at the time were not the best. We had Rauf Denktash at the helm of the Turkish side, who showed incredible stubbornness, and Bulent Ejevit, the Prime Minister in Ankara, who held the same position when the Turkish invasion took place in 1974. His view was that there was no Cyprus problem and that the Cyprus problem was solved then. Because of this political situation, we lost three years.

At the end of 2002, however, the negotiations were in the final stage. The Council of Europe in Copenhagen in 2002 found that the Greek Cypriots were constructive and cooperative and that the Turkish side was not so cooperative. The decision was therefore very easy. Within a few minutes, we decided to proceed with Cyprus' accession course on the condition that the Turkish side would follow as soon as a solution was found. Of course, the possibility of finding a peaceful solution was not in the hands of the EU but in the hands of the United Nations. For this reason, I am not in a position to comment on whether the efforts of the United Nations were sufficient. But I remember very well that we as the EU had to support the United Nations financially, both with equipment and expertise. We tried to coordinate the negotiations on Cyprus' accession path, and the United Nations tried to coordinate the negotiations on the resolution of the Cyprus problem.

Clerides' promise

Q: In this exact context, was there a prior commitment on our part?

A: Obviously there was a prior commitment. The Greek Cypriot side promised to support the negotiations for the resolution of the Cyprus problem under the auspices of the United Nations. Glafkos Clerides personally promised me that 'the negotiating process for the solution of the Cyprus problem will not fail because of the stance of the Greek Cypriots. We will support it.' But when the plan was submitted, he was already out of power...

Q: This was also implied by Tassos Papadopoulos at the time, that he himself was not in power then. So Mr. Clerides gave prior assurances?

A: It wasn't official, but it was a matter of trust. I fully trusted Glafkos Clerides and believed that if he were in power we would have reached a solution. It's just that his term ended and we had Tassos Papadopoulos, who had a different view and was clear about the whole issue. I knew from the beginning of his term that we could not count on his support.

Q: Then why did you mention that everyone was surprised by his move to reject the Annan Plan?

A: I hoped that a final joint effort of the United Nations, the EU, the two communities, and the guarantor countries would be enough to change his stance. The truth is that there was a final effort to resolve the problem at the Switzerland summit in Burgenstock with the presence of all involved parties. It was a secret meeting without the presence of the media. Nevertheless, before the start of the summit, Tassos Papadopoulos told Kofi Annan that he could not accept the plan for the resolution of the Cyprus problem. So we knew from the beginning that it was more or less a futile process. The reason was very clear. There was a serious disagreement between the United Nations and the Greek Cypriots regarding the structure of governance. I believe Tassos Papadopoulos was concerned that too much power would be conceded to the Turkish side and that they would have too much influence in governance. The political question was: equal rights for both communities or concession of minority rights for the Turkish Cypriots?

Q: What exactly happened at Burgenstock?

A: Not much. Negotiation, in the sense that all the parties involved would be in a room and would talk, submit proposals and new suggestions, trying to reach some compromises, never happened. It was just discussions.

The rumor about Karpasia

Q: Was there a rumor that we missed the opportunity to negotiate and win over Karpasia? Is it true?

A: I don't rule out that possibility. It could have been in the final package of discussions and compromises, but we didn't get that far. In the end, Kofi Annan decided that the United Nations should increase pressure on both sides. He presented them with a package, a new constitution, and many laws in hundreds of pages. It was the 'take it or leave it' approach without the possibility of changes. The plan provided for a referendum in both communities, and you know well the result. The Turkish Cypriots accepted it, the Greek Cypriots rejected it, and the treaty for Cyprus' accession to the EU would be signed a few days later...

Q: Was there any communication with the political parties on the Greek Cypriot side?

A: No, my interlocutor was always the president and his government.

Q: There was a discussion back then about the fact that you wanted to speak about the Annan Plan and you were not allowed by the Greek Cypriot media. Is that true?

A: I don't remember anything like that; the moments back then were very intense, and it's been 20 years. The Cyprus issue was an event that globally aroused enormous interest, as it concerned a conflict that had occupied Europe and the rest of the world for decades. There was, of course, a discussion in the European Parliament, but the result was clear. The Accession Agreement of Cyprus to the EU was ready, and there was no way to change it then. However, to be honest, no one suggested that under the current circumstances, Cyprus should not join as a member state of the EU. The result was acceptable, certainly not with enthusiasm, but acceptable.

It wasn't a mistake for Cyprus to join the EU back then

Q: Do you consider it a mistake for Cyprus to join the EU as it did then?

A: No, not at all. The European project is not exclusively for Western Europe; it's for everyone. The Treaty states that any European nation willing to meet the requirements can apply. This was clear for Cyprus, which is a European country and holds great strategic importance in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, I must tell you that for me personally, geopolitical significance is not the dominant factor. Regarding the negotiations, the Republic of Cyprus and the Cyprus Parliament were very constructive, and they successfully incorporated European law into Cyprus's system.

Q: So, the fact that Cyprus was divided and at the same time a member of the EU didn't cause problems for other member states?

A: No. This reminds me of an interesting story with Rauf Denktash. He said that the EU wouldn't have the courage to accept a divided country, nor the courage to incorporate an unresolved conflict within the EU. And I told him, 'Mr. Denktash, we won't allow a local Turkish dictator to decide whether Europe will be united or not.' I didn't believe that the fact that Cyprus would enter without first resolving the Cyprus issue would create major problems, nor was there an expectation of violent clashes. Moreover, in 2003-2004, the situation on the ground improved significantly. There was much cooperation and contact between the two communities, and certainly, the situation for the people of Cyprus was much better than it was some years before.

Q: Personally, do you regret anything from this whole process?

A: Neither do I regret nor do I harbor any feelings of bitterness. Cyprus is a respected member of the EU, fulfills its obligations and belongs to the European family. However, there is a pending situation as long as the conflict remains unresolved.

TAGS
Cyprus  |  Europe  |  Turkey  |  CYPROB

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