EU-NATO cooperation on the Cyprus conflict

EU-NATO cooperation on the Cyprus conflict


31 | 07 | 2023


A clash of interests between Member States and projection of coordination credibility

In the image

Nicosia street cut by the Green Line. From this footbridge, one can see the no man's land of the Green Line, and beyond that the Turkish part of the city [Gérard Janot]

The objective of this essay is to analyze how the European Union acts to resolve the conflict in Cyprus, taking into account the complex coordination of its obligations in accordance with Article 42 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), which establishes cooperation between the Member States (MS) and the EU regarding the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) but also coordination with NATO. To do this, the origin and current status of the conflict will first be examined, as well as the identification of the main agents involved. After that, the implications that the conflict is assuming for the bilateral relations of Turkey and Cyprus with NATO and the EU will be observed, something to take into account if the EU is considered as an agent with mediation capacity. This may allow to understand the actions taken at the moment (including the joint initiatives of the member states) and how they are also coordinated with the interests and objectives of NATO, projecting credibility towards the Eastern Mediterranean region.

The origin of the conflict lies on the Turkish military intervention on the island, which resulted in the capture of the north of Cyprus. This occurred after the Greek military junta-led coup in 1974 on Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot community unilaterally declared independence in 1983, creating the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The UN upholds a buffer zone (Green Line) with the objective of peaceful resolution of the conflict[1]. Relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have improved recently, and formal reunification discussions started in early 2014, despite those have often paused and resumed since then. Talks mediated by the UN in 2021 also failed. The European Court of Human Rigths (ECHR) contends that Turkey's authority over the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is moot, and that the republic should be viewed as a puppet state.[2]

Tensions escalated again in October 2022 after the US lifted the arms embargo which has been in force since 1987 to prevent further violence. These occurred as US-Turkish relations were deteriorating following Turkey's 2016 purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia.[3] Despite being both NATO-MS, discrepancies over interests arose.[4] Recently, US imposed sanctions on Turkey-based entities which violated US export controls, helping Russia's war effort[5].

It should be understood that the origin of this conflict is linked to the strategic cultures of Greece, Turkey and the UK. Greece's Megali Idea and Panhellenism led to the defence of enosis,[6] while Turkey's Panturkism promoted taksim.[7] [8] These cultures led to interest incompatibilities and are related also with conflict in the Aegean Sea and balance of power in Eastern Mediterranean.[9] The UK has also been involved in the conflict to maintain its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially trough the bases of Akrotiri and Dekelia.[10]

The paralyzed conflict on Cyprus has implications for the EU, especially regarding the CSDP. This is due to the fact that Cyprus is MS of the EU and according to the Mutual Defence Clause enshrined in Art. 42.7 TEU:

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.[11]

The restoration of the territorial integrity of Cyprus is binding and the EU countries must cooperate (not necessarily trough a military operation),[12] but NATO-EU coordination poses difficulties due to Cyprus not being part of NATO and Turkey not being yet a member state of the EU.[13] The EU also gives special relevance to the EU-UN Strategic Partnership through the European External Action Service (EEAS), which asks for coordination with the UNFICYP. The UNSC passed Resolution 2674 (2023) to extend the mandate of this UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.[14]

The tensions between Greece and Turkey, which could spark a war, are undermining NATO's ability to project credibility in the region. The responsibility of the EU to safeguard the sovereignty of Greece and Cyprus[15]and that of NATO to defend Turkey's interests on an equal footing with the other members means that this makes more difficult EU-NATO cooperation.[16] Rather, due to the conflict, Greece suspended its NATO membership from 1974 to 1980.[17]

In the same way, this state of affairs affects the bilateral relations of Turkey and Cyprus towards both intergovernmental organizations.

In the case of Cyprus, the conflict makes it impossible for it to be a member of NATO since, in accordance with Art. 10, its entry requires unanimity. Such unanimity is impossible since Turkey would vote against it, fearing that Cyprus could activate Art. 4 to try to restore its integrity.[18] Furthermore, the Cyprus Parliament decided to apply for participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program in February 2011, but then President Christofias vetoed the decision because it would interfere with his efforts to broker a settlement to the conflict.[19] Under these circumstances, Cyprus relies on the CSDP regarding its security and foreign affairs.

Turkey considers it essential to restore the balance between NATO's transparency and the EU's rigid interpretation of its interactions with NATO to fulfill contractual responsibilities. As expressed through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is thought that when non-EU European Allies participate in CSDP operations, the EU maintains a restrictive stance. In order to fulfill contractual responsibilities as well as the goals of a Comprehensive Approach, it is essential for Turkey to restore this vital equilibrium, which over time became to the detriment of non-EU European allies. This, according to Turkey has not been in conformity with the Nice Implementation Document of 2002. Turkey also criticizes the non-signature of an agreement with the European Defence Agency (EDA) for classified information exchange. This is because Cyprus' veto towards that agreement.[20] The issue has been a point of concern in the Strategic Compass 2022:

“With Turkey, a contributor to CSDP missions and operations, we will continue to cooperate in areas of common interest. We remain committed to developing a mutually beneficial partnership, but this requires equal commitment on Turkey’s side to advance on a path of cooperation, sustained de-escalation and to address EU concerns, in accordance with the statement of the members of the European Council of 25 March 2021.”[21]

The EU is interested in maintaining good relations with Turkey as a strategic partner despite the freezing of its candidacy for membership. A possible resolution of the conflict could favor the opening of a dialogue about its candidacy.[22]

This is one of the reasons why it has tried to act as a catalyst for the mediation of the conflict,[23] in such a way that the Turkish Cypriot population is persuaded to reunify by the benefits of being MS of the EU.[24] For example, Cyprus' Treaty of Accession 2003 included Art. 1.1 which states: “The application of the acquis shall be suspended in those areas of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control.”[25] Despite this, the Turkish-Cypriot population is granted consideration as EU citizens, which allows them, among other things, to vote and be candidates in the European Parliament elections.[26]

Moreover, the European Parliament twice considered opening trade with the TRNC (2004 and 2010), but the resolution was vetoed by Cyprus, considering such action as an indirect recognition.[27]

It is also necessary to understand that being a EU MS also implies being under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This would serve as a guarantee for both groups of Cypriots as a guarantee of application of the rule of law for both, avoiding future discrimination.

Finally, the EU has also assisted the Turkish Cypriot community in preparing to adopt EU law in the future, financing civil society organizations, infrastructure projects, and training on EU rules under the Financial Aid Regulation.[28]

However, several reasons have been put forward to render this catalyst ineffective. The first reason is that maintaining de facto independence from the TRNC is vital for Turkey. The EU has offered economic reasoning, but the conflict is ethnic. That is why the Turkish Cypriots continue to trust more in the economic umbrella that Turkey offers than in the one the EU could offer. Without going any further, the EU promised aid of €260 million within three years; but Turkey transfers the same amount annually. The second reason would be that, after all, the TRNC is a puppet state of Turkey. Therefore, any action will require the approval of Turkey and not so much of the citizenry. Finally, it is necessary to understand that the TRNC is linked to Turkey through its culture. The possibility of unifying the island is based on secularization. The decline of Turkey in the Democracy Index in recent years may affect the search for such a secular state.[29]

EU's measures are based on soft power, as it has ensured no escalation of tensions that could affect NATO's credibility and cannot carry out actions contrary to the resolutions of the UNSC.

The EU has recently opened up to using also economic sanctions. The Commission has made the decision to extend some of the approved eight packages of sanctions against Russia to Turkish companies and individuals for their relationship with the conflict in Ukraine. In a statement made by the Greek MEP Dimitrius Papadimoulis, from The Left group, Cyprus and Greece are given an important relevance:

“At the same time, Turkey is ramping up its aggressive rhetoric towards Greece and Cyprus, together with its encroachments on their airspace and territorial waters, accompanied by unlawful territorial claims and military threats. However, the EU is continuing to refrain from imposing sanctions, notwithstanding the repeated urgings of the European Parliament prompted by infringements of the sovereign rights of EU Member States and the continued erosion of the rule of law. […]

Is it considering the creation of an automatic penalisation mechanism within the framework of the EU-Turkey Customs Union to be triggered by challenges to the territorial sovereignty and sovereign rights of Member States or encroachments thereon by Turkey?”[30]

The EU countries have also taken actions by which they emphasize their support for the territorial integrity of Cyprus. Perhaps the highlight would be the joint naval exercises between some Mediterranean states such as Greece, Italy, Cyprus and France. These exercises were conducted over the Greek and Cypriot EEZ claimed by Turkey and the TRNC.[31] But is meaningful to mention that from the beginning of the decade the US has also started being involved in naval exercises with Cyprus. These operations are understood in the context NATO-EU cooperation. According to the Cyprus Defence minister, “We know the importance of joint exercises like this and hope to work closely with partners in the future in order to promote peace and stability in our region.”[32] These actions would suggest that Turkey has the support neither of the EU nor of the US to continue with the ‘taksim’. After all, the US has been an important agent for conflict resolution approaches as mediator, mainly because its permanent status in the SC and its experience, like with the Abraham Accords.[33]

In conclusion, a favorable resolution of the Cyprus conflict is a vital interest for Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. The EU and NATO must coordinate their efforts for the defence of the continent, but also have to pay attention to the interests of their MS. The non-reconciliation between these interests implies a loss of prestige and credibility in the face of the Eastern Mediterranean. The EU has tried to act as a catalyst for a resolution based on the unity of the state of Cyprus through soft power, but this has not had the desired effect. Turkey's approach towards Russia has allowed the Commission to rethink these measures, and member states have carried out joint naval operations with Cyprus that can be interpreted as a claim to their rights over the EEZs. Agreement on this issue between the US and the EU is vital for NATO-EU coordination.


[1] According to Cyprus constitution, both greek and turkish population remain as citizens of a same state. As such the territorial integrity of the state must be safeguarded. Despite that, as member of the European Union, Cyprus must respect the UNSC decisions. 

[2] Milano, Enrico. 2005. Unlawful territorial situations in international law: Reconciling effectiveness, legality and legitimacy. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff.

[3] Psaropoulos, John. 2022. “New Crisis Brewing on Cyprus after US Lifts Arms Embargo”. Al Jazeera. el 27 de octubre de 2022.

[4] Sánchez Tapia, Felipe. 2018. “Turquía y Estados Unidos: una relación convulsa”, Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos.

[5] Reuters. 2023. “U.S. Sanctions Turkey-Based Entities It Says Helped Russia’s War”, April 12, 2023.

[6] Enosis: Panhelenic movement supported by ethnically Greek population of the island of Cyprus which supports the idea of a political unification of Cyprus to Greece.

[7] Taksim: Term used by the Turkish-speaking community on the island of Cyprus that refers to the goal of dividing the island into two nation states. One in which the Turkish Cypriots predominate and in another the Greek Cypriots.

[8] Kizilyürek, Niyazi. 2003. “The Politics of Identity in the Turkish Cypriot Community: A Response to the Politics of Denial?” MOM Éditions 37 (1): 197–204.

[9] Kyris, George. 2016. The Europeanisation of Contested Statehood: The EU in Northern Cyprus. London, England: Routledge.

[10]Goktepe, Cihat. 2013. British foreign policy towards Turkey, 1959-1965. London, England: Routledge.

[12] The EU considers the sovereign territory of Cyprus as the same as the United Nations does. Also, any of its Member States has ever recognized Northern Cyprus as a de juris state and as so, they recognize the hole island as sovereign jurisdiction of the Republic of Cyprus (except the UK enclaves). This also extends to the recognition of the EEZ, which international source of law for recognition is UNCLOS. 

[13] NATO. 2023. “Relations with the European Union”, Nato.Int July 25, 2023.

[14] UN. 2023. “Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2674 (2023), Security Council Extends Mandate of United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus”. January 30, 2023.

[15] The EU intends to become catalyst for conflict resolution, but at the same time defending its MS’s vital interests.

[16] Taşpınar, Ömer. 2010 “Cyprus and the NATO-EU Divide”. Brookings Institution. November 29, 2010.

[17] Ghosh, Palash R. 2012. “Why Is Turkey in NATO?” International Business Times. June 26, 2012.

[18] Dempsey, Judy. 2010. “Between the European union and NATO, many walls”. The New York Times, November 24, 2010.

[19] Chislett, William. 2010. “Cyprus: Time for a Negotiated Partition?” Elcano Royal Institute. July 5, 2010.

[20] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey. “III. The European Union Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and NATO-EU Strategic Cooperation”.

[21] EU. 2022. “A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence”.

[22] EU. 2021. “The European Union and Türkiye”. September 28, 2021.

[23] Sommerset, Tonje B. 2005. “The European Union and the Cyprus conflict. A study of the EU influence on different parts of the Cyprus conflict”. University of Oslo.

[24] Kyris, George. 2013. “The European Union and Cyprus: The Awkward Partnership”. Euractiv. April 2, 2013.

[25] EU. 2003. “Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Cyprus”.

[26] Beunderman, Mark. 2007. “MEPs consider Turkisch Cypriot observers in EU Parliament”. EUobserver, March 14, 2007.

[27] EU. 2004. “Proposal for a Council Resolution on special conditions for trade with those areas of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control”. July 7, 2004.

[28] EU. 2006. “Aid Programme for the Turkish Cypriot community”. European Commission.

[29] Sommerset, Tonje B. 2005. “The European Union and the Cyprus conflict. A study of the EU influence on different parts of the Cyprus conflict.” University of Oslo.

[30] European Parliament. 2022. “Sanctions against Turkey and Turkish entities”. Parliamentary Question. October 11, 2022.

[31]Sheline, Annelle, and Rachel Esplin Odell. 2020. “Greek and Turkish ships are playing chicken at sea. There’s already been one crash”. The Washington Post, September 12, 2020.

[32] O'Neill, Monique. 2021. “Greece, Cyprus and the U.S. Join Forces for Naval SOF Exercise in the Mediterranean Sea”. US European Command. February 10, 2021.

[33] Marda, Elena. 2013. “Gas in East Mediterranean: A Complicated Story”. Isis Europe, June 4, 2013.