The latest round of UN-brokered talks to end Cyprus’s frozen conflict fell short on Tuesday. Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci left the negotiating table in Switzerland empty-handed after two days of talks that many believed were the best chance yet to reunify Cyprus.
“Despite their best efforts, they have not been able to achieve the necessary further convergences on criteria for territorial adjustment that would have paved the way for the last phase of the talks,” the UN said in a statement.
The Mediterranean island has been divided between Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since 1974, when Turkey sent troops in after a short-lived Greek-inspired coup. The UN has overseen a ceasefire line between the south and Turkish-held north of the island in the four decades since.
Cyprus’s conflict has vexed diplomats for decades. But this was the closest the two sides have come to a reunification deal. “We are way ahead of what has ever happened before,” U.N. Envoy for Cyprus Espen Barth Eide said as the talks opened in early November. “No negotiations on Cyprus have come close to the level we are at now.”
Despite the setback, there are still hopes for a deal in the future. The biggest reason for the cautious optimism is the two leaders, Anastasiades and Akinci, themselves. “They are both legitimately invested and committed to a settlement,” Megan Poole, a Cyprus expert with the Atlantic Council, told Foreign Policy.
“Usually when these talks fail, there’s quite a bit of fanfare,” Poole said. But neither side traded high-profile diplomatic tirades this time, instead opting to return to their respective capitals to regroup.
“It is a serious setback but not the end yet,” Hubert Faustmann at the University of Nicosia told Agence-France Press.
A successful Cyprus deal would reverberate well beyond the tiny island. It would open the door to new cooperation between NATO and the EU. Cyprus (not including the Turkish-held Northern Cyprus) is a member of the EU but not NATO; Turkey is a member of NATO but not the EU. Both countries have used their respective seats in Brussels to block effective cooperation between the institutions.
A peace deal could also formally bring the first Turkish-speaking Muslim-majority population, Northern Cyprus, into the EU’s fold. A unified Cyprus, including Northern Cyprus, “could become the EU’s bridge to Turkey and other Muslim communities in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Poole told FP.
The Cyprus deal has also drawn the personal interest of top U.S. leaders and diplomats. This includes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who visited the island in 2014, and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. The United States has played a back seat in the negotiations, but getting to the finish line in the next few months could provide a final, high-profile win in Europe for the outgoing administration.
The talks ultimately broke down on Tuesday when the leaders broached territorial holdings. The Turkish-Cypriot side aimed to retain 29.2 percent of the island, while the Greek Cypriots pushed for 28 percent. The breakaway Turkish-Cypriot side, which is only recognized as a full-fledged state by Turkey, currently controls 36 percent of the island.
“Both leaders will have to move on the territorial question, and if they are prepared to do this then the process can continue,” Faustmann told AFP.
The 1.2 percent difference that ultimately stalemated the talks had to do with each side’s stake in specific villages and towns. “Cyprus is a small island with small cities and smaller communities,” Poole said. “Even with that tiny slice of territory, you’re talking about impacting people’s lives in a very real way.”
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