Verheugen offers Commission's encouragement ahead of peace talks
Larnaca, Feb 18 (CNA) - EU Enlargement Commissioner Gunter Verheugen sent a message of encouragement and appreciation on his arrival on the island this evening, ahead of tomorrow's resumption of the UN-led peace process, which aims at a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem before the island joins the EU on the 1st of May.
Speaking to reporters on his arrival, Verheugen said he believed that now there is sufficient common ground and enough political will to bring the Cyprus problem to an end.
Verheugen said he is ''very, very glad to be back in Cyprus, under much better circumstances and conditions than ever'', noting he is ''visibly optimistic''.
''My message today is a message of encouragement and appreciation'', he said, adding that he highly appreciates ''what both parties have done''.
''I highly appreciate the support of Turkey and Greece, the US, the UK and particular I have to praise the crucial efforts of the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, and his Special Adviser, Alvaro de Soto'', Verheugen said.
The Commissioner noted the EU has played ''a role to create a political breakthrough that we saw last week in New York''.
''I think there is now sufficient common ground and enough political will to bring a conflict that is decades old and is still the only divided capital in Europe in place, to bring that conflict to an end'', he said.
He added the purpose of his visit today and tomorrow ''is first of all to discuss the political situation with the leaders of the two communities and with the UN and to repeat our messages, to confirm again that we are ready to accept a united Cyprus as a respected equal member of the EU''.
''Secondly'', he said, ''that we are ready to help the Turkish (Cypriot) community to catch up economically'', noting that the EU has allocated funds for that purpose.
He reminded that the EU is ''prepared to initiate an international donors' conference to help finance all reunification related costs, and we will be able to do that very soon''.
Verheugen said another purpose of his visit ''is probably more important and a little more difficult''. He said he has to discuss with the parties the cooperation that the European Commission can offer in making the solution compatible with EU law.
''I repeat what President Prodi and the European Council have stated several times, we will be able to accommodate the elements of a settlement as long as they are not in contradiction to the principles on which the EU is founded''.
Noting he does not see any ''major problems'', Verheugen said ''timing might be a problem because everything must be done before the 1st of May''.
Furthermore, he said they would discuss tomorrow ''how much political and technical and legal expertise, coming the Commission, is needed''.
Verheugen noted he made it very clear that ''technical and legal support for the peace process here in Cyprus is now priority number one for the Commission and we will make available all our sources which we need in order to help both parties to conclude the negotiations and to come to a successful outcome''.
For this reason, he said, ''it is very important to meet the three parties tomorrow together because there is some coordination that must be done''.
At this point, Verheugen stressed that ''the Commission is not part of the negotiations, it does not want to be, it was never our position but it is important to organise the way, how we support both parties with technical and legal advice''.
Verheugen, who will have a joint meeting with the leaders of both communities and the UN tomorrow after the first meeting in Nicosia, said they would discuss the principles and details of the involvement of the Commission. He said the Commission will have ''a relatively strong delegation here on the spot and if needed we can even enlarge it and make everything available to make the process a success''.
The EU Commissioner said ''the solution of the Cyprus conflict after so many years will be a positive thing now, not only for Cyprus, not only Greece and not only for Turkey but the ability for the whole region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East''.
''There is a lot effort and strong political will, even a very old and very, very difficult and very controversial conflict can be solved'', he pointed out.
Asked what would happen if either side rejected the solution in a referendum, Verheugen said ''it is not in the interest of both communities to let the 1st of May pass and have the accession of a divided island''.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied its northern third. Stalled peace negotiations resume tomorrow in Nicosia, with a view to reuniting the island before it accedes to the EU on May 1.