Lessons from the Cypriot EU Accession process for the Occupied Regions in
Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine

May 2024

Vita van Dreven

THRI Research Fellow

With Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine as candidate states, the EU is now forced to deal with a complicated matter, namely the Russian-supported secessionist regions in these states. Georgia has Abkhazia and South Ossetia (internally referred to as the Tskhinvali region); Moldova has Transnistria; and Ukraine has Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk.

The EU underscores their territorial integrity and recognizes all these territories as occupied, yet it cannot be denied that it will have consequences for the accession process and potentially even after membership has been acquired. Nevertheless, it is often forgotten that the EU already has a member state whose territory is partially occupied: Cyprus. How did this territorial conflict impact its accession process? What lessons can be drawn that might be applicable to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine? This article discusses the case of Cyprus and the implications for the three candidate states.

Signing of the Treaty of Accession of Cyprus to the European Union (Athens, 16 April 2003)

Brief Historical Context

While a full discussion of the historical background from all four states is beyond the scope of this article, a brief introduction of the often-forgotten conflict in Cyprus is needed. The start of the conflict in Cyprus dates back to 1960, when the island gained independence from British colonial rule through a violent uprising (Ker-Lindsay, 2017). On the island, two communities exist: the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, supported by Greece and Türkiye, respectively. From the start, Greek Cypriots wished for reunification with Greece (enosis), causing tensions with the Turkish Cypriot population.

Throughout the 1960s, military tensions arose on both sides, yet negotiations to settle the dispute continued and seemed feasible. On July 15th, 1974, however, a military coup d’état by the Cypriot National Guard and the Greek military junta against the President of Cyprus took place (Ker-Lindsay, 2017). Five days later, Türkiye invaded Cyprus (aimed at protecting the Turkish Cypriot population on the island) and gained control of roughly 37 percent of the island. This has led to a division into the Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. To this day, only Türkiye has recognized the Turkish Republic. In the decades following, several attempts have been made to solve the conflict, but none have proven successful.

During the Cypriot EU accession process, it became apparent that joining with an occupied region had a significant impact. This was acknowledged by the Commission of the European Communities in its 1993 report, which stated that Cyprus was eligible for EU membership, yet the prospect of an agreement between Cyprus and Northern Cyprus (and in extension Greece and Türkiye) was deemed vital (Commission of the European Communities, 1993).

It is worth mentioning that at the same time, Türkiye was still intent on joining what is now known as the European Union. Türkiye’s EU aspirations were also utilized during settlement discussions, as for example, in March 1995, Türkiye was offered a Customs Union Agreement (with Greece’s approval), while Cyprus could start accession negotiations and Greece obtained a new financial package (Theophanous, 2023). In 1998, Cyprus officially started accession negotiations with what is now known as the EU. In December 1999, the European Council stated that ‘[t]he European Council underlines that a political settlement will facilitate the accession of Cyprus to the European Union. If no settlement has been reached by the completion of accession negotiations, the Council’s decision on accession will be made without the above being a precondition’ (European Parliament, 1999, emphasis added).

With the chances of Cyprus’ (and Türkiye’s for that matter) EU membership growing, negotiations for an agreement were revitalized. This resulted in what is known as the Annan plan, which puts forward the solution of a federation called the United Cyprus Republic (United Nations, 2004). The republic was modeled after Switzerland and makes the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot sides equal states within a federal system. To this day, the Annan plan is the closest all parties have come to reaching a settlement. Several drafts of this plan were made, and the final version was put up for a referendum on April 24th, 2004. The Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the plan, accepting the plan of unification and an equal federal system. The Greek Cypriots on the other hand rejected the plan (Theophanous, 2023).

Nevertheless, on the 1st of May 2004, Cyprus became a member of the EU as a divided island. More controversially, in the policy document ‘Agenda 2000: For a stronger and wider Union,’ the EU outlines, among other things, its vision regarding enlargement, emphasizing the resolution of any border conflicts before joining. The document states ‘[e]nlargement should not mean importing border conflicts. The prospect of accession acts as a powerful incentive for the states concerned to settle any border disputes’ (European Commission, 1997).

This focus extends beyond conflicts between (prospective) member states and also includes disputes with third states. While not constituting a hard condition for membership like the Copenhagen criteria or the acquis chapters, it suggests that the EU did not fully adhere to its own principles during Cyprus’ accession. It is noteworthy that the EU has reiterated this stance in the context of Balkan enlargement in 2018, again emphasizing the importance of resolving any border disputes (European Commission, 2018).

The establishment of effective control based on military, economic, and political support is also relevant for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine during their accession process.

EU membership and the Probability of Renewed Armed Conflict

Before turning to the lessons that could be drawn from the Cyprus accession process, it is worth noting that the comparison in its core is not perfect. The occupied regions differ in population size, area size, level of international recognition, economic situation, level of Russian control, democratic ranking of the de facto government etcetera. Possibly the most significant difference lays in the occupying actor and its relation vis-à-vis the EU. Türkiye is a strategic partner, a NATO member, and intended to join the EU at the time of Cyprus’ accession. On the other hand, Russia is considered a big threat to the overall stability and safety of the EU and is not an EU nor a NATO member. Though this might appear self-evident, it significantly influences the settlement process. With Türkiye, the EU could offer a reward to both Cyprus and Türkiye, where compromises would be rewarded with progress in the accession process.

Similarly, due to the Turkish membership of NATO, the stationing of its troops on what is considered EU territory is less concerning than the Russian troops in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This also raises the question of what happens if there is a renewal of armed conflict. Focusing solely on the responsibilities of EU member states, under article 42(7) of the Treaty on the European Union, member states are forced to support (‘aid and assistance’) other member states in case of armed aggression (Official Journal of the European Union, 2010). Assistance under article 42(7) does not necessarily mean military troops but can refer to ‘diplomatic support and technical or medical assistance to civilian or military aid’ (Strategic Communication EEAS, 2022).’

This means that if Ukraine became an EU member while not yet having defeated the Russian forces, it would not immediately involve the other EU member states in the conflict (unlike under article 5 of NATO). Similarly, if renewed armed conflict took place in Georgia or Moldova, EU member states would not be forced to send troops. So, while the EU member states might hesitate during the accession process out of fear of being involved in armed conflict, this would be dependent on what the attacked member state requests. Likewise, the EU member states do not have to comply with the requests of the attacked member state.

During the Accession Process

An important aspect of occupation is the lack of control over a state’s full territory. Ukraine is, for example, still an active warzone and the territories claimed by the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic are not fully under the separatists’ control (Hopkins & Kramer, 2022). Similarly in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has been pushing the Administrative Border Line further into Georgian territory (Seskuria, 2021). The Cypriot territorial conflict provides a (legal) framework that is relevant to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine as well, due to the extensive case law which stems from it. It has been argued that Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus have shaped the legal framework around territorial jurisdiction within the Council of Europe and the European Union by extension. Pivotal was the case Loizidou v. Turkey, in which a Cypriot national claimed that her rights under the European Convention for Human Rights had been violated by the Turkish forces stationed in Northern Cyprus (European Court of Human Rights, 1996).

The European Court of Human Rights consequently ruled that Türkiye had effective control over the territory based on its military presence and hence, had the obligation to protect the rights and duties set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. Moreover, on the question whether Türkiye was responsible for the violations committed by the de facto government of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the Court ruled that by virtue of exercising effective control overall, they could also be held responsible for the policies and actions of the de facto government. A state therefore bears responsibility for human rights violations in territories under its miliary occupation as by the laws laid down in the Convention.

The establishment of effective control based on military, economic, and political support is also relevant for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine during their accession process. In the case of Georgia and Moldova effective control already has been established in, respectively Mamasakhlisi and Others v. Georgia and Russia (European Court of Human Rights, 2023) and Ilascu and Others v. Moldova and Russia (European Court of Human Rights, 2004). The rulings of the Court apply to every party of the Convention, which includes the European Union, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and most importantly Russia, and they have the binding legal obligation to implement judgements and/or decisions of the Court.

Yet, it must be mentioned that Russia has ceased to be a member of the Council of Europe after the 16th of September 2022 (Council of Europe, 2022). Consequently, Russia is no longer a member of the Convention and can only be held responsible for violations of human rights up until this date. The Court will continue to deal with cases already brought against Russia. For Ukraine, this means that they will only be able to prosecute Russia for its violations of human rights during the full-scale invasion up until this period.

The Court has already ruled over Crimea in Ukraine v. Russia (Re Crimea), stating that Russia exercised effective control over the peninsula (European Court of Human Rights, 2021). Moreover, in January 2023, the Grand Chamber of the Court ruled in Ukraine and the Netherlands v. Russia that from the 11th of May 2014 at least up until the date of the court hearing (26th of January 2022) Russia had effective control over eastern Ukraine – hence referring to Donetsk and Luhansk – due to its considerable military, economic, and political support (European Court of Human Rights, 2022). This ruling, however, does not cover the period after the full-scale invasion.

During the accession process, candidate member states are supposed to prove they fulfill the Copenhagen criteria and can effectively implement the acquis (European Commission, n.d.). However, if the European Court of Human Rights has ruled Russia has effective control over the occupied regions in question, how are Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine supposed to guarantee the satisfaction of the Copenhagen criteria and the acquis chapters over their complete territory? The Copenhagen criteria are essential political and economic conditions, such as the rule of law, while the 35 acquis chapters reflect the alignment of national legislation with the EU’s legislation, for example in regard to the freedom of movement.

Turning to Cyprus for guidance, as part of its accession to the EU ‘Protocol No. 10 on Cyprus’ was adopted. In general, this protocol indicates that an adjustment to the foundational treaties of the EU was made. More specifically, under ‘Protocol No 10 on Cyprus’ the application of the acquis is suspended in the areas where the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control (European Union Member States, 2003). This can be lifted in the case of a comprehensive settlement through a unanimous decision by the European Council, following a proposal of the European Commission.

In an earlier Commission Opinion on the application of Cyprus, they additionally stated that ‘[a]s a result of the de facto division of the island into two strictly separated parts, however, the fundamental freedoms laid down by the Treaty, and particular freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital, right of establishment and the universally recognized political, economic, social and cultural rights could not today be exercised over the entirety of the island’s territory. These freedoms and rights would have to be guaranteed as part of a comprehensive settlement restoring constitutional arrangements covering the whole of the Republic of Cyprus’ (Commission of the European Communities, 1993, emphasis added). On the other hand, Turkish Cypriots are considered EU citizens and the fact that EU legislation is suspended does not impact their personal rights (European Commission Representation in Cyprus, n.d.).

Hence, if the EU were to adopt a similar approach as with Cyprus’ accession, the occupied territories in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine could be considered EU territory and the population living in these regions could be considered EU citizens living in territory outside government control. However, the application of EU law might temporarily be suspended.

After the Accession Process

If settlement is again not a condition for the accession process in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – similar to Cyprus – an agreement does not become more likely to happen after acquiring membership. Even before the candidate status, the EU has dealt with these occupied regions in particular. Scholars have described this policy as ‘engagement without recognition’ and the term was first mentioned in September 2003 during a Council of Europe-sponsored conference (Ker-Lindsay, 2015).

It became an official policy in the aftermath of the August War in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, when the EU adopted the Non-Recognition and Engagement Policy (NREP). The goal is similar in every case: interact with the occupied territories, without recognizing it as a full-fledged state. The NREP policy is generally considered to have had limited success, as the de facto government of the regions and its population do not trust the EU (Relitz, 2016). Moreover, the European financial support is rather low compared to the extensive Russian support.

The ‘engagement without recognition’ policy also describes the policy in Northern Cyprus after the accession process. An example of that is Council Regulation No 389/2006, which aims to establish financial support for the Turkish Cypriot community. It only refers to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as ‘the areas of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of the Republic of Cyprus does not exercise effective control’ (The Council of the European Union, 2006). This language mirrors the case law by the European Court of Human Rights mentioned above.

Furthermore, it states: ‘[n]othing in this Regulation is intended to imply recognition of any public authority in the areas other than the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.’ Especially in the first years after the accession, there were high hopes that a settlement would come soon. Nearly two decades later, the situation has remained roughly the same and the two parties seem further apart than ever. The last five-party talks took place in April 2021 and both parties remained with their earlier positions: the Turkish Cypriots advocated for a two-state solution and the Greek Cypriots backed a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation (Theophanous, 2023). It also does not help that Türkiye’s EU aspirations have wilted and hence, cannot serve as a compromising tool anymore.

Policies comparable to the Council Regulation and in line with ‘engagement without recognition’ can be put in place during and after the accession process, focusing on financial support for the occupied regions. The EU can also provide support through monitoring missions. In the case of Georgia and Moldova, this will constitute a continuation, as the EU already has, respectively, the EU Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) and the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in place. The EUBAM’s mandate does not cover Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. However, the EU is rather limited in what it can achieve without potentially losing approval of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

The EU tried for many years to allow trade between Northern Cyprus and EU member states, but ultimately in 2010 it was ruled that this was not under the decision power of the members of the European Parliament (Vogel, 2010b). This was the result of heavy criticism from the Republic of Cyprus that opening up trade would imply recognition (Vogel, 2010a). Similarly, under Georgian law, it is forbidden to conduct any economic activity in the occupied territory (Government of Georgia, 2008). Overall, it should be remembered that EU membership is not the solution: settlement of the conflicts will take years, if not decades, and will be costly, both in terms of personnel and financial support.


In conclusion, the accession process of Cyprus does provide some insights into what the accession process for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine might look like in terms of the occupied regions. Firstly, two lessons from the Cypriot accession process were discussed, namely that settlement of the territorial dispute does not have to be a condition and that EU legislation will likely be suspended for the occupied regions, yet the entire territory will be considered EU territory.

The population living in these regions could also be considered EU citizens. After the Cypriot accession process, there was significant optimism regarding the possibility of a settlement. However, as the current reality in Cyprus reflects, territorial conflicts are difficult to solve, and EU membership does not drastically change the facts on the table. The same can probably be said about Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. This nevertheless does not mean that efforts to reach a peaceful settlement should be decreased or even paused. One might question whether the governments in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will even agree with an agreement similar to Cyprus. But it could be the only possibility to acquire EU membership without having to renounce the claim to their occupied territories.


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