Erdoğan Calls for a Two-State Solution in Cyprus as Turkey’s Bid for EU Membership Remains Stalled

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called in a news conference on November 15, 2020 for a two-state solution in Cyprus. Cyprus is made up of two geopolitical settlements: the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, an ethnically Greek country that is a member of the European Union (EU), and the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The latter is a disputed, ethnically Turkish territory, whose statehood is recognized only by Turkey.

The current geopolitical situation is the product of a July 1974 coup d’état in which the Greek government deposed Cypriot President Makarios III, a clergyman who had resisted Greek attempts at unification with Cyprus, and replaced him with Nikos Sampson, a Greek nationalist and irridentist. Greece aimed with the coup to annex Cyprus as a Greek territory. Turkey responded by invading Cyprus five days later and eventually captured around a third of the island. Makarios retook control of the Republic of Cyprus later that year but failed to unify the island, and the Turkish-controlled region, Northern Cyprus, declared statehood and independence in 1983.

Most negotiations in the last four decades have sought to reunify Northern Cyprus with the rest of the island.[1] But the most recent attempts at reunification failed in 2017, and the October 2020 election of Northern Cypriot President Ersin Tatar, a Turkish nationalist and supporter of Erdoğan, makes reunification unlikely.[2] Observers expect Tatar to reject any talks of reunification and to encourage Erdoğan and Turkey to play a more active role in Northern Cypriot domestic politics going forward.[3]

Officially, Turkey supports a two-state solution in Cyprus on the grounds that Northern Cypriots should have sovereignty and self-rule. Hami Aksoy, a spokesperson from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, said in a statement last week that “a fair, lasting and sustainable settlement is only possible if it is based on the will of the two peoples who are the co-owners of the island.”[4] Aksoy added that Turkey does not see reunification as an acceptable outcome in Cyprus “because the Greek Cypriot side does not consider the Turkish Cypriot people as an equal partner and does not want to share the power and wealth [of Cyprus with them].”[5]

But some Northern Cypriots resent Turkish interference in the country, which they see as subverting Northern Cyprus’ sovereignty and independence.[6] Hundreds of Northern Cypriots protested Erdoğan’s visit to the country last week, calling for “no interference” and “freedom for all.”[7] In spite of some internal opposition to Turkish interventions in the country, Northern Cyprus seems set to cede some of its sovereignty to Turkey in the aftermath of Tatar’s election as president.[8]

Turkey has a strong strategic incentive to create a sovereign, internationally recognized Northern Cypriot state. Turkey hopes to lay claim to the substantial hydrocarbon deposits found near the coast of Cyprus.[9] Its attempts to do so by launching natural gas exploration missions to the Cypriot coast have drawn backlash and sanctions from the EU, which sees those Turkish missions as illegal.[10] The Republic of Cyprus claims that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) entitles it to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) over the hydrocarbon deposits.[11] Northern Cyprus disputes that claim,[12] and if it became a sovereign state UNCLOS would likely entitle it some drilling rights in the region. As Northern Cyprus cedes parts of its sovereignty to Turkey, Turkey could exploit those drilling rights for its own gain.

The situation in Cyprus comes with the backdrop of Turkey’s continued attempts to join the EU. Turkey first applied for EU membership in 1987 and the EU recognized its candidacy in 1999. Negotiations for Turkish accession to the EU began in 2005 but have stalled in recent years in part because of Turkey’s continued support for a sovereign Northern Cypriot state. The EU sees Northern Cyprus as a territory of the Republic of Cyprus that is illegally occupied by the Turkish military.[13]

Erdoğan said on November 22 that Turkey still hopes to accede to the EU and called on the body to grant Turkey full membership. But Turkey’s continued support for a two-state solution in Cyprus makes its membership bid unlikely to succeed. Because Turkey has a strategic incentive to back Northern Cypriot sovereignty and win a claim to the hydrocarbon deposits off the Cypriot coast, it seems unlikely that Turkey will renounce its support for a two-state solution and accede to the EU in the near future.


[1] Al Jazeera, “Turkey’s Erdogan says Cyprus should aim for ‘two separate states,’” November 15, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nektaria Stamouli, “Erdoğan calls for ‘two-state’ solution for Cyprus,” Politico, November 15, 2020.

[4] Ekathimerini, “Turkey slams EU over Cyprus,” November 16, 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Al Jazeera, “Turkey’s Erdogan says.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Deutsche Welle, “Turkey’s Erdogan calls for ‘two-state solution’ in Cyprus,” November 15, 2020.

[10] Deutsche Welle, “Turkey, Cyprus and gas deposits: What you need to know,” July 16, 2019.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] James Ker-Lindsay et al., An Island in Europe: The EU and the Transformation of Cyprus (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011).