ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday a solution was needed to end the division of Cyprus and guarantee the stability of the eastern Mediterranean, touching on an issue that has long hampered Turkey's bid for membership of the European Union.
The four-decade division of Cyprus between the Greek-speaking south, which is an EU member, and the breakaway Turkish-backed north has slowed Turkey's EU accession efforts. Only Ankara recognises northern Cyprus as a separate state.
But the EU needs Turkish help in stemming the flow of large numbers of migrants to Europe from the Middle East and beyond, potentially giving new impetus to Ankara's membership bid.
EU diplomats worry that Erdogan may try to use the migration crisis as added leverage in the Cyprus negotiations.
"We on the Turkish side are sincere about finding a solution to the Cyprus problem that has been on the agenda of the international community and the U.N. for over half a century," Erdogan said during a visit to the north of the island.
"A solution would not only have a positive impact on both sides of the island ... but would also bring peace, stability and cooperation to the eastern Mediterranean," he said in a speech at the opening of a pipeline project to deliver fresh water from Turkey to northern Cyprus.
The island was split in a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup. Erdogan said a solution was needed that would "guarantee Turkish Cypriots' legitimate rights and their political equality".
EU leaders agreed this week to offer Turkey cash, easier visa terms and a "re-energised" consideration of its EU membership bid, in an effort to secure cooperation on encouraging Syrian refugees not to head to Europe and deterring economic migrants from Asia.
Broadening EU membership talks could draw opposition from Cyprus, which has in the past blocked the opening of talks on new 'chapters', or policy areas. Erdogan's comments came a day before German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Istanbul to discuss the EU proposals.
(Reporting by Asli Kandemir; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Gareth Jones)