Saturday, May 8, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Literally overnight, the people of this Mediterranean island between Turkey’s Anatolia region and the coast of Syria, have found themselves in Europe.

Although the European shore is 500 miles distant, on May 1 the European Union accepted Cyprus among its 10 new members, expanding the bloc to 25 countries with a population of 450 million.

Only 850,000 people live in Cyprus, of whom 200,000 are in a separate Turkish state, which, because of a political quirk, did not qualify to become European at this stage.

When the cheers of the festive Greek Cypriot crowd in the heart of Nicosia, the divided Island’s capital, died down and the colored lights were extinguished, the problems and expectations of being European emerged with new intensity.

To many Cypriots their awakening was queasy, a sort of “Monday-morning blues.” The mixed plethora of triumphant slogans and appeals to caution added to the general confusion.

“For better or worse, till death do us part?” asked a headline in the Cyprus Mail, an English-language daily.

Richest among the 10 new EU members, with a per capita income of $16,000 and a per capita gross domestic product of $18,000, the Greek Cypriot part of Cyprus is also wealthier than such longstanding members as Greece and Portugal.

However, it brought with its baggage the historic animosity between the Greek-speaking Cypriot majority and the Turkish Cypriot minority, and the failure of the latest United Nations-brokered plan to unite the island of 3,600 square miles — 37 percent of the land area of Maryland.

Known in antiquity as Makaria (the opulent one), in more recent years Cyprus often was called “the unsinkable aircraft carrier of the Mediterranean.” It is one of the world’s most militarized countries, with troops from Turkey, Greece, the United Nations and Britain, as well as the armies of its two ethnic communities.

The Cypriot outlook on the world is basically limited to preoccupation with what has become known as “the Cyprus problem.” To the outside world, the problem is the festering sequel to a 1974 Greek military coup to annex the island to Greece, and Turkey’s invasion of the island to prevent that move.

The Greek Cypriots feel they have been wronged by the continuing Turkish military presence and the creation of a Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the island. The Turkish Cypriots say they were second-class citizens before the 1974 invasion, and they want their own state in a federated republic, as proposed by the United Nations.

Thirty years of futile diplomacy ended temporarily in April with a referendum on a U.N. blueprint on how to bring the feuding sides together so both could enjoy EU membership and eliminate the problem. The Turkish minority accepted the plan urged by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but the Greek majority rejected it, considering it too costly and favorable to the Turkish side.

Further complicating the situation is that although, in principle, Cyprus entered the EU as one country, the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government has no control over the Turkish part of the island. Consequently, the Turkish Cypriots, who voted for unity, have found themselves barred from Europe.

Thus, the European Union has inherited the problem it tried to avoid, because other, less vexing problems loom. Cyprus has become what one official described as “the Eurocrat’s permanent headache.”

The Greek Cypriot part of Cyprus joins the union at a time of soul-searching among EU members trying to define their objectives and priorities. Opinion polls indicate growing popular disinterest in the EU’s affairs, particularly with elections to the European parliament.

Opposition is rising against the powers of the EU commission in Brussels, which many consider as excessive and often encroaching on the sovereignty of member nations.

To Dominique Moisi of France’s Institute of International Affairs, Europe is coming together “in fear and trepidation.” When communism started imploding in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s, the richer Western Europe offered “a combination of political legitimacy, based on the strength of its institutions, and of economic modernity, evident in its thriving capitalism,” Mr. Moisi said.

“In 2004, the European Union is much less secure about itself and about the quality and future of its work,” he said. “Deep down, the EU has greater doubts than before about the ability of the new Europeans to learn from the old.”

The new Europeans found the union mired in a swamp of rules written by unelected “Eurocrats” in Brussels, who shower the unsuspecting populace with daily effusions of fine print. Disagreements about the proposed EU constitution continue, as does the discussion about whether Muslim Turkey should be admitted to Europe’s “Christian club.”

Turkey, which has only 5 percent of its territory in what traditionally has been considered to be Europe, hopes the EU will set a date for its membership negotiations, enhanced by its approval of the “Annan Plan” as a solution in Cyprus.

Perhaps ominously, because they are EU members themselves now, the Greek Cypriots will be in a position to veto Turkey’s admission, arguing that Turkey’s military occupation of a portion of Cyprus should disqualify its application.

Many Greek Cypriots believe their week-old EU membership offers protection against another Turkish invasion, although the nucleus of the often-discussed “Eurocorps” is not considered to be a valid military deterrent.

However, in the near future, the EU will be more preoccupied by debates over subsides to the relatively affluent French farmers and to desperately poor Polish farmers, about regulations on the importation of goods from outside the EU, and about the future of the until now successful euro, so far adopted by 12 of the 25 members.

Cyprus, financially at the head of the new members but with influence reduced by its smallness and division, has yet to fully assess its prospects, opportunities and role in the new Europe. In general, Cypriots are not particularly modest. “Europe can learn a lot from us,” one Greek Cypriot official said.

The negative consequences of the April 24 referendum in which the Greek Cypriots rejected the U.N.’s unification plan, and the ensuing criticism of the Greek Cypriots by the international community, already have taken their toll.

Cyprus — that is, its Greek part — has entered Europe under a cloud. The political pendulum has shifted to favor the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as the EU hastily revises its policy and grants to the island.

United by their 75 percent “no” vote in the referendum, Greek Cypriots are divided in their feeling about their new European affiliation. Some examples follow:

• Kypros Christodoulou, 23, student: “Europe will give us new opportunities and a chance for a better solution to the Cyprus problem, making it a European problem.”

• Panayiotis Tsiouttas, 58, construction worker: “Everything will be bad for the first 10 years. The cost of living will rise, and the Cypriot pound will fall.”

• Carolina Nicolaou, 24, police officer: “We will be safer as we will have Europe behind us. Everything will be tax-free; we will be living better and our economy will expand.”

• Giannis Sofocleus, office manager: “I personally think it will be a disaster. I can’t trust any politician, so I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I can’t believe it will be good.”

• Costas Constantinou, 49, telephone company employee: “I don’t feel as safe as I should have felt by entering the European Union. The cost of living will be very expensive, but there will be social advantages and human rights will be strengthened.”

Though the citizens of the “old EU” grumble about unemployment, taxes and the overwhelming and overpaid bureaucracy, the new members are looking for handouts that would raise their standard of living, most of them ravaged by 45 years of communist rule.

Cyprus is smug because of its wealth but nonetheless expects to share in the expected EU largesse. Already burdened by supporting its own army — small but equipped with state-of-the art hardware — it resents additional spending.

“Is EU membership worth all the sacrifices?” asked the Cyprus Mail. The newspaper answered its own question:

“Disillusionment is setting in as more and more people recognize that the undoubted political benefits of membership (the most important being that Cyprus is no longer at Turkey’s mercy) come with a high economic cost.

“Consumers are already complaining about across-the-board soaring prices that are eroding living standards, while businesses accustomed to being protected by the state are struggling. Subsidies, rescue packages, special privileges and tax breaks that the government distributed like confetti among companies when they were in trouble now belong to the past.”

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