Turkey can join in regional energy cooperation if non-combative

A recurring theme appears to provide the backdrop for Turkey’s adventurist actions – from Mosul to the Aegean and back to the eastern Mediterranean. The need for energy has shaped the way that Turkey, a large country with limited energy reserves, approaches its neighbours – not by building bridges, but by stoking tensions while trying to assert itself via spoiling-tactics and provocations.

According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey has the highest rate of growing energy demand among OECD countries over the last 15 years and a high dependency in energy imports. “Located in close proximity to around seventy percent of the world’s proven oil and gas reserves, Turkey is one the biggest natural gas and electricity markets in its region,” it said.

Looking back on the course of Greek-Turkish tensions, one sees time and again the quest for energy driving the two countries to the brink through heated exchanges. Cases in point: the events of 1976 and 1987 in the Aegean; the numerous incidents around Cyprus after 2011; the disputes over the proposed EastMed pipeline that would bypass Turkey to transfer natural gas from the Levantine basin to Italy via Cyprus, Crete and Greece; the Erdoğan-GNA maritime delimitation agreement of November 2019  that “erases” the maritime zones of large Greek islands, such as Crete; Turkey’s maximalist Mavi Vatan doctrine; and the Oruç Reis’s recent incursions into disputed areas over which Greece asserts jurisdiction south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

Greece, for its part, began searching for oil in the north Aegean back in the 1960s. Exploration rights were then granted to American companies, like Oceanic Exploration, to conduct surveys in the areas surrounding the island of Thassos, off the coasts of Kavala and Western Thrace. The Prinos oil field was discovered in 1974 – a few months before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.  

The first major crisis would follow in 1976, when Turkey’s research vessel the Hora moved close to the Greek island of Lesvos, prompting an assertive Greek response. A second major crisis would follow in 1987, when Turkish research vessels the Piri Reis and Sismik – the Hora under a new name – tried to approach Thassos to conduct surveys accompanied by Turkish warships.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, tension moved to Cyriot waters, with Greece and Turkey having gone through a short-lived ‘honeymoon’ of sorts – earthquake diplomacy, Greece’s lifting of veto for Turkey to start accession negotiations with the European Union – followed by the Greek Cypriot rejection of the Annan Plan.

The Republic of Cyprus, an EU member state since 2004, signed maritime delimitation agreements with Egypt in 2003, Lebanon in 2007 and Israel in 2010 largely based on the equidistance principle. Moving on to the next step, it granted Noble Energy, an American company, permission to drill in waters south of the island, thus paving the way for what would be the discovery of the Aphrodite gas field, “the first offshore Cyprus natural gas field”, within block 12 of the Cypriot exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in December 2011.

Turkey, a non-party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, would reactively rush to delineate its own so-called “EEZ” with the internationally unrecognized “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, grant exploration licenses to the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) and send its own vessels to conduct surveys south of Cyprus, while advocating “equitable principles” over those of equidistance.

Eight years later, Ankara would go through a similarly disruptive process again, this time with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), thus moving the unilateral Turkish maritime claims way beyond the 28th meridian east that used to be the westernmost limit of Turkey’s official claims in the eastern Mediterranean up until the summer of 2019.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, chooses to present Ankara’s actions as an answer to what other countries have been doing in the region, while rejecting Greek and Cypriot calls for the continental shelf and EEZ delimitation cases to be brought before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.  

Turkey’s so-called reciprocal actions, however, go beyond being reciprocal to the point of being outright hostile, thus prompting angry responses and furthering Turkey’s self-imposed isolation.

The Mavi Vatan doctrine, for example, is presented as an answer to the so-called Seville Map. The Seville Map, however, is not an official Greek position, in the sense that Greece has not officially presented the outer limits of its continental shelf nor EEZ on maps. Hence, you won’t find such maps on the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. What you will find is the Greek position that “in the absence of a delimitation agreement with neighbouring States, the outer limit of the continental shelf is the median line between the Greek coasts and the coasts opposite or adjacent to those”.

The oil boom expected by many in the Aegean did not happen, at least not for the time being and not to the extent expected decades ago, while the prices of hydrocarbons remain low, making some of the larger scale projects commercially unfeasible.

The planned $7 billion EastMed pipeline is, for example, a project that seems to be running out of steam under current conditions. The fall in energy prices, the oversupply of natural gas, the option of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and the general drive towards renewables are all factors that could push commercial developers away from technically demanding, expensive pipelines.

The Aphrodite field near Cyprus has yet to start producing gas after all, while ExxonMobil, ENI and TOTAL have all postponed their drillings scheduled for 2020 to 2021 due to the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the energy market.

Turkey, on the contrary, is the only ‘actor’ whose ships continue to conduct surveys and drills in the eastern Mediterranean during the pandemic, precisely because their aims are geopolitical (indicative of Turkish strategical anxieties) rather than commercial.

Things seem bleak at the moment from an energy perspective, but the situation could turn around.

“One of the ways it could turn around is if local economies decide to invest in restructuring so that their internal systems become more natural gas-friendly and will keep the gas local rather than build a large pipeline to go to Europe or ship as LNG to compete in Asia,” Gabriel Mitchell, Director of External Relations at The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim), told me in a phone conversation. “Many parties in the region are trying to find the right language for cooperation.”

The EastMed Gas Forum, formed by Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and Palestine with the aim “to serve as a platform that brings together gas producers, consumers and transit countries”, could serve as a platform of regional energy cooperation, not only in the field of natural gas but, ultimately, in the fields of electricity and renewables as well.

It is important to remember though that Washington has actually supported the idea of inviting Turkey to participate in the East Med Gas Forum as well. Other countries can apply to join, Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El Molla said just days ago, “as long as their goals match those of the forum”.