Two recent deals signed by the states in the Eastern Mediterranean have taken our attention once again to ask “what is happenning in the energy geopolitics of the region?” Who cooperates with whom? Who competes with whom? What are their interests and expectations in signing those deals? What are the grounds behind their actions in opposing them? In other words, what politics they pursue in cooperation and competition causing energy geopolitics to become an ever more complex game in the region, besides facing many technical challenges hindering the implementation the agreements they signed.
Energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean are not new. Libya and Egypt are already the traditional producers as well as exporters in the region. The term ‘energy geopolitics’, however, has been frequently referred to since the exploration activities launched by Cyprus in the first decade of the millennium. Or when it signed various memoranda of understanding with some littoral states in the region such as Egypt in 2003, Lebanon in 2007 and Israel in 2010 and in between, by 2007, granted exploration licences to international energy companies. And the first gas discovery in Cyprus was announced in 2011 (by US-based Noble in Aphrodite field). Likewise, Israel exploration activities resulted with success even earlier when it found gas in 2009 (by the same company in Tamar field). On the other hand, a new gas field was discovered by Egypt in 2015 (by Italian ENI in Zohr) whereas Turkey began drilling last year with Turkish TPAO, Greece and Lebanon have already launched exploration process by signing some agreements with various international energy companies while Jordan is planning to begin. All those Eastern Mediterranean states have been continuing their efforts with a hope to find more hydrocarbons or new promising fields on their continental shelves and/or exclusive economic zones. So far, it seems normal that countries in the region have been seeking to explore and when possible to exploit their natural resources for their citizens to have a better future, for which they need cooperation with each other, and also with external actors (be states, organizations and companies) mainly aiming to gain know-how of transnational energy giants and political supports from outside powers. However, this has turned energy geopolitics in the region to an ever more complex game. That is, their regional and international cooperation has caused more competition and tensions among them but also with external powers involved in the game.
On 27 November 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU). And on 2 January 2020, Israel, Greece and the Republic of Cyprus signed another MoU. While the former aims demarcation of maritime zones between Turkey and Libya, the latter construction of a natural gas pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean to the European Union, called as EastMed. And both deals have created tensions among those countries because the continental shelf delimited by Turkish-Libyan MoU is where the EastMed pipeline planned to cross. For the parties to the EastMed deal, the time of signing such an agreement was an answer to the Turkish-Libyan deal. While for Turkey, the EastMed deal was agreed purely on the basis of political concerns of the signatories. When combined with the chronic Cyprus question, the overlapping continental shelves and/or exclusive economic zones (EEZ) problem among Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus (including both Greek and Turkish Communities) has made the situation worse ever in the current energy geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean together with the involvement of external actors with divergent interests and expectations in the game, another EEZ problem between Israel and Lebanon, question of Israel-Palestine, Turkey-Egpyt frozen relations, conflict in Syria and attempts towards militarization of energy.
The EastMed pipeline is planned to carry potential natural gas resources of Israel and Cyprus to the EU energy market underneath the Aegean Sea passing through the Crete Island from there to Greece, and later to Italy (though it is not clear yet because the country did not sign the deal). The length of the continental shelves between the littoral states in the eastern Mediterranean is shorter than 400 nautical miles. Thereby, states in the region cannot delimit their maritime zone boundaries as 200 nautical miles for each (as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Article 57). It is for this reason that they need consent of each other when they decide to explore or exploit natural resources in their overlapping continental shelves and/or EEZs. Looking from this perspective, Turkey argues that without its consent it is not possible to construct the EastMed natural gas pipeline; and, the Republic of Cyprus is an island, thereby, the Greek Cypriot Administration cannot act like a government of a littoral state in determining EEZs on the basis of the principle applies to littoral states. While the proponents of the EastMed deal, including the European Union, do not take those statements of Turkey into consideration by pointing out that Turkey is not a party to the UNCLOS so that it cannot refer to the provisions of the Convention or the rights granted by it.
When we look at the discussion in terms of Cyprus question, for Greece, the Greek Cypriot Administration and the European Union, the Republic of Cyprus is an internationally recognized state as such it has right to explore and exploit its natural recources in the Island, hence can sign such deals. While from the view of Turkish side, including Turkish Cyriots, the Republic of Cyprus is not the original ‘bi-communal’ state established by both Greek and Turkish Cypriot peoples in 1960 with the equal legal and political rigths. What the international community recognizes is this original state once represented both Greek and Turkish communities. And the present Republic of Cyprus represents only Greek Cypriots (so became EU member in 2004), hence, according to this view, it has no a right to take unilateral decisions on behalf of all Cypriots unless a permanent solution be found by both, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, in the Island.
Beside those political barriers, the EastMed natural gas pipeline faces various technical challenges as well. The proponents of the pipeline first need to guarantee enough natural gas. The already discovered and promising gas resources are limited to fill a pipeline whose initial capacity is estimated as 8-10 billion cubic meter (bcm) targeting an increase up to 20 bcm. An almost 2.000-km pipeline mostly running under thousands of meter deep-water needs billions of dollars. An around $6 billion budget is estimated for its initial capacity only. Who will finance it, is not yet clear. Thirdly, the EastMed project targets the Southern Eastern Europe as the potential market where it currently competes with other projects such as TANAP+TAP which has already become operational, and TurkStream which is under the construction. Though, it can decrease import dependence of the SEE countries on Russian gas but who will take the risk of constructing such a technically difficult and costly high project. Whereas the implementation of the Turkish-Libyan MoU seems difficult at least in a near future because of facing hard political and legal claims between its proponents and opponents stemming from their overlapping continental shelves and/or EEZs dispute. When combined with other interests of the regional actors like concerns about their economic well-being, political stability and security as well as those of external powers (be the EU, its member states, the United State, Russia etc) like their strategic, geopolitical and balance of power expectations, competition in the Eastern Mediterranean energy geopolitics seems to prevail over cooperation causing deadlock in the game, hence, hindering the parties to reach absolute gains in a foreseeable future.
 Arzu Yorkan, Senior Researcher, Centers for Energy and Environmental Studies, Otto-Suhr Institute of Political Science at Free University of Berlin.