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Gas Pains in the Eastern Mediterranean
A Turkish military helicopter and warship are shown on July 11, 2019 accompanying a drilling ship sent by Turkey to find natural gas in waters claimed by the Republic of Cyprus. (Turkish National Defense Ministry - handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Gas Pains in the Eastern Mediterranean

Ankara has sloughed off moves the European Union took to retaliate for Turkish drilling in waters claimed by EU-member Cyprus

Turkey has sent out two privately owned drilling ships to look for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, where major offshore finds in recent years have made countries sit up and start thinking about not only their energy needs, but the profits or royalties involved in potential exports.

One of these countries is Turkey, which relies on imports for almost all of its carbon-based energy. Most of these imports come from Russia, Iran, Iraq, the Gulf states and eastern Africa, so it’s clear that Ankara would like to stake some of its own claims.

What has made these two particular ships newsworthy is the fact that they’re looking for gas in waters that the Republic of Cyprus says are its own.

The republic contends it is sovereign over all of the island and its coastal waters, but Cyprus, whose residents for the most part claim Greek or Turkish ancestry, has been divided since the mid-1970s, with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus claiming sovereignty over the Northeast.

Most countries recognize the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey does not, recognizing instead Northern Cyprus – which no other country does.

Ankara, according to Onur Erim, a political analyst in Turkey, “is trying to make sure that both the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey get their own fair share of the carbon deposits, whether gas or oil, in the area. Do not forget that Cyprus… should be a bi-communal republic, which it has not been since the ’70s…. So [Turkey] is looking out for its own interests.”

Turkish claims aside, the Republic of Cyprus seems hesitant to go on the record regarding the matter, having failed to answer numerous Media Line requests for official comment. Most likely this is due, at least partially, to its small size and the fact that its National Guard of fewer than 100,000 members, including reservists, is no match for the military might of Turkey.

As a member of the European Union, Cyprus apparently is relying on Brussels to make its case, and the EU indeed responded to the Turkish presence off the island with moves of its own.

“In light of Turkey’s continued and new illegal drilling activities, the [European] Council decides to suspend negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement and agrees not to hold the Association Council and further meetings of the EU-Turkey high-level dialogues for the time being,” the EU said in a July 15 statement.

“The Council,” the statement went on, “endorses the [European] Commission’s proposal to reduce the pre-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020 and invites the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey, notably with regard to sovereign-backed lending.”

Ankara’s response to the EU was terse.

“The decisions will not affect in the slightest our country’s determination to continue hydrocarbon activities in the eastern Mediterranean,” a Turkish statement read in part.

According to Erim, the EU’s threats, at least for now, carry little weight.

“In a world where everything is interconnected, what the EU is saying it will do… is usually easier said than done,” he noted.

Perhaps part of the problem of offshore claims and counterclaims is the fact that there are no purely “international” waters in the Mediterranean.

According to the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which took effect in 1994, every country with a coastline has what is called an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which begins between the country’s land borders and extends 200 nautical miles out to sea or to a halfway point where it meets the EEZ of a nation or nations on a facing shore. Everything in the water or under the seabed can be exploited by the country claiming the EEZ.

As the Mediterranean is like a lake with zigzagging coastlines and islands that either are sovereign (e.g., Cyprus) or belong to a coastal country (e.g., Crete, a part of Greece), mapping out EEZs in the region is not simple. What’s more, according to Prof. Nathalie Ros, a French expert on maritime law, prior to the recent gas discoveries, most Mediterranean nations were never quick to lay claim to their offshore rights.

“[T]he situation is changing now, especially in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, where the delimitation of EEZs is used in order to permit offshore exploitation, even before proclaiming the zone, and without any delimitation of the corresponding continental shelf,” she wrote in a recent research report.

The Republic of Cyprus is a signatory to UNCLOS. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Turkey are not. Throw in a healthy pinch of animosity and it’s clear where the drilling issue comes from, with all three parties laying claim to at least parts of the island’s EEZ.

Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that the stipulations mentioned in UNCLOS, including its reference to EEZs, are non-binding.

“Membership [in UNCLOS] is not compulsory,” Dr. Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU and currently a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “It cannot impose any decision… [and] it cannot necessarily determine a line to separate EEZs.”

Eran has been watching a similar dispute between Israel and Lebanon. Spectacular Israeli gas finds in its EEZ have apparently whetted the appetite of the Lebanese, and since the two countries have never come to an agreement on their land border, their maritime border – that is, where their EEZs meet – is even less clear.

“It was a one-sided decision by the Lebanese back in 2010 when they submitted a [border] line to the department in the UN that deals with this issue,” Eran said. “What it triggered was an Israeli decision to submit its own version of the maritime border between the two EEZs, and as a result, there is an area of about 850 sq. km. [330 sq. mi.] that is in dispute.”

There were recent attempts by the United States to mediate talks leading to a framework in which Israel and Lebanon could sit down to discuss the issue, but for the time being they have gone nowhere.

Eran feels that Turkey’s move into the waters off Cyprus is less about natural gas or economics than it is about politics and international alliances.

Ankara, he told The Media Line, is “using the natural gas as a pretext to show an independent political course that right now takes [it] away from the American/European camp toward creating stronger ties with both Russia and China,” he said. “It is another act to express their regional role, their willingness to go into some kind of confrontation with the EU… and depart from certain accepted norms for political reasons, rather than look for natural gas off the coast of Cyprus.”

Erim, the Turkish political analyst, seems to concur, hinting that the EU made a crucial mistake that might be exacerbating the current tensions.

“The EU has forgotten about its own writing when it accepted Cyprus into the EU before Turkey, which is something [the EU] signed in writing not to do,” he told The Media Line. “[Therefore], Turkey is not going to look too favorably when it comes to suggestions from the EU, especially on Cyprus.”

Doesn’t this raise the risk that Turkey will never be accepted into the ranks of the European Union?

“[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan said many years ago that [membership] is an aim, not a goal, and we will do what needs to be done to enter the standards of the EU – but if they don’t want Turkey as a part of the EU, that’s their own [business],” Erim said.

“I would say that in at least the last few years,” he went on, “the belief [by] Turks of ever getting into the EU is slim to none.”

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