BACKGROUND: Turkey, which has long sought to become natural gas transit state to Europe, is determined to have its share in Eastern Mediterranean gas drilling and transit. The confrontation between Turkey and the European Union in the Eastern Mediterranean has grown to be one of the major flashpoints in Ankara's relations with Brussels. The unfolding Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon race at the European Union's doorstep is threatening security at its south-eastern flank while endangering the EU’s plans to diversify its natural gas import portfolio.
Turkey has an advantageous geographical location and is also a large net gas importer, yet it has been left out of the regional energy projects. In this context, Turkey sees the gas alliance of Greece, Israel, and Cyprus as threatening its energy interests since the EastMed pipeline planned by these countries, which is endorsed by the EU, would bypass Turkish territory. Turkey has also been excluded from joining the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which was established in January this year by seven Mediterranean countries -- Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt -- to launch a regional gas market. These developments prompted Ankara to pursue drilling activities within Cyprus' territorial waters and increase its engagement in Libya.
At the heart of Turkey's dispute with Europeans in the Eastern Mediterranean lies the conflict between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus over the demarcation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the island and over permits to explore its natural gas deposits. Turkey argues that the Republic of Cyprus cannot singlehandedly issue natural gas drilling permits and has to share exploration rights in its exclusive economic zone as well as a proportional stake in its hydrocarbon wealth with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) that is not recognized internationally. The Republic of Cyprus and the EU claim that Cyprus is entitled to develop and commercialize its own gas deposits under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which stipulates that an exclusive economic zone can stretch out to 200 miles from the country's coast, where it can explore maritime resources, including hydrocarbons. However, part of the EEZ claimed by the Republic of Cyprus overlaps the territory which Turkey regards as a part of its continental shelf. Furthermore, Turkey is not a part of UNCLOS and argues that islands are not entitled to a full maritime zone.
IMPLICATIONS: Despite international condemnations, Turkey has dispatched both drilling and seismic survey ships into Cyprus' EEZ, which were escorted by Turkish navy vessels. Turkey has also used its military to block Cyprus' gas exploration. Turkey continued its drilling activities in Cyprus in April and May this year as it sent its two drilling ships Fatih and Yavuz (named after two Ottoman conqueror-sultans) to the Eastern Mediterranean along with two other seismic vessels. In the past year and a half Turkey has also conducted several naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean, the latest of them in late April this year, in an obvious move to demonstrate its military prowess and deterrence capabilities.
The EU feels compelled to show Cyprus its support and deem Turkey's drilling activities as hostile acts. The EU was prompted to denounce Turkey’s moves after interventions from Cyprus and Greece. After several warnings, Brussels in November 2019 adopted an economic sanctions mechanism against Turkey, which involves travel bans and asset freezes in response to its drilling activities in the disputed areas of Eastern Mediterranean. In February this year EU put this mechanism into motion by sanctioning two Turkish individuals who work for the Turkish state-owned TPAO oil company. A month earlier, the EU had cut Turkey's pre-accession aid by 75 percent.
The long-standing antagonism between Turkey and Greece is exacerbated by the dispute over the exploration of Cyprus' natural gas deposits. Lately, the situation has become even more severe as Greece has reported an upsurge of numerous violations of its airspace and territorial waters by Turkey. The hydrocarbon game in the Eastern Mediterranean has also caused friction between France and Turkey and the diplomatic crisis between the two countries has lately become acute following France's growing engagement in the region and its backing of Greece and Cyprus. France has significant energy interests in Cyprus as its energy giant Total has a stake in developing hydrocarbon deposits in the part of the island's maritime zone where Turkey has dispatched its drilling ships. In February this year Cyprus purchased French missiles and organized joint military drills with the French military. Furthermore, earlier this year France dispatched its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the East Mediterranean to show support for Greece and Cyprus, as the latter has been calling for naval support from fellow EU countries. Recently, France also requested to join East Mediterranean Gas Forum, a body in which Turkey is noticeably absent.
The other Eastern Mediterranean issues that Turkey has been at loggerheads with Europeans is the planned EastMed pipeline and Turkey's interlinked military activity in Libya. In January this year, Israel, Cyprus and Greece signed an agreement to build a subsea pipeline that will carry southeastern Mediterranean gas to Greece and further to Italy. The pipeline that is initially set to carry 10 billion cubic meters annually is endorsed by the EU as a project, which will help Europe diversify its natural gas supply imports. Turkey has been left out of this project, which Ankara perceives as yet another attempt to undermine its energy interests in the region.
In December 2019, Ankara decided to sign a controversial maritime border delineation agreement with Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA), which was criticized by EU members as a “resource grab” that violates international law. According to the deal the maritime zone to the east of Greece's island of Crete, where the EastMed pipeline is projected to run, will belong to Turkey, which will enable Ankara to obstruct construction of the pipeline. However, European condemnations did not deter Turkey from using the agreement as a pretext to announce its plans in late May this year to start hydrocarbon exploration off Crete, a move that will only add to the tense situation in the region. Furthermore, Turkey's military intervention in Libya in support of the GNA puts it at loggerheads with France and Greece which side with GNA's rival, military commander Khalifa Haftar.
CONCLUSIONS: The discovery of new gas reserves in the region was expected to bring peace and prosperity to the Eastern Mediterranean littoral states but it has created new geopolitical and security risks instead. Fierce competition for hydrocarbon reserves has enflamed decades-long conflicts in the region, created new ones, and exacerbated disputes over maritime boundaries. Regional energy disputes also reverberate beyond Eastern Mediterranean as they spread into the Libyan conflict and attract players from the Middle East as well as Russia.
The feuds over Eastern Mediterranean gas exploration continue even though its commercial viability has been significantly reduced. Global demand for natural gas has recently fallen as result of the worldwide lockdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which put a downward pressure on already low gas prices. Nevertheless, several littoral states continue their gas exploration activities or go ahead with pipeline construction, which suggests that the regional hydrocarbon disputes are not fuelled by exclusively commercial considerations.
Turkey's assertive stance in the Eastern Mediterranean shows that Ankara is unlikely to abandon its pursuit for hydrocarbons in the region and that it will hence remain on a collision course with Greece and Cyprus. Turkey's fait accompli policy in the region puts the EU in an uneasy position. While defending their strategic interests, Europeans also need to seek de-escalation and should recognize that circumventing Turkey is not a viable strategy. Otherwise, there is a clear risk that the hydrocarbon dispute in the region will spiral out of control and lead to military confrontation. The escalation of the conflict with Ankara will also contribute to further destabilization in Libya, which will only add to the challenges that the EU is currently facing.
Image Source: Public Domain accessed on 6.29.2020