No one much has noticed, but what will probably turn out to be the biggest geopolitical event of the year took place last weekend. I’m referring to the announcement by Kofi Annan of a referendum on the reunification of Cyprus to be held on 21 April this year. There’s still room for something to go wrong, but I’ll present my analysis on the basis that the referendum will be held and approved, which seems likely at present.
Why should settlement of a long-running dispute on a Mediterranean island, with no recent flare-ups, be so important ? Let me count the ways.
First, this is another victory for the boring old UN processes so disdained by unilateralists.
Second, a settlement of the Cyprus dispute would mark the end of hostilities between the modern states of Greece and Turkey that go back to the achievement of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire 200 years ago. Taking a longer historical view, the predecessor states of the modern Greece and Turkey have been at the frontline of hostilities between Islam and Christendom for 1000 years or more. By comparison with this dispute, the troubles in Ireland are of recent vintage.
Third, and most important, the positive role played by the Turkish government, until now the sponsor of the separatist government in Northern Cyprus, will greatly strengthen Turkey’s case to become a candidate for admission to the European Union. Admission of Turkey, which could be expected to follow by around 2010 would dramatically change the dynamic of Middle Eastern politics. Iraq, Iran and Syria would all have borders with Europe. With membership of the EU, Turkey would provide a model of an increasingly prosperous, secular and democratic state in a predominantly Islamic country. By comparison, the replacement of the odious Saddam Hussein with an imperfectly democratic Islamist government dominated by Shiites (the most plausible current outcome for Iraq) would fade into insignifance.
A decision by the EU to reject Turkey, despite its dramatic progress towards a fully democratic system of government, would be equally significant, but in the negative direction. The advocates of rejection, most notably the German Christian (!) Democrats would correctly be seen as being motivated primarily by anti-Islamic prejudice. This would be a big setback in the struggle against terrorist forms of Islamism.