Unresolved Cyprus issue underlies gas dispute in Eastern Mediterranean

Turkey has done little to win the support of Athens and Nicosia.
Sunday 09/02/2020
Faruk Kaymakci, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister in charge of EU affairs. 	    (Courtesy of Faruk Kaymakci)
Blaming the EU. Faruk Kaymakci, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister in charge of EU affairs. (Courtesy of Faruk Kaymakci)

Turkish officials said progress in the unresolved conflict on the divided island of Cyprus could help defuse the increasingly bitter dispute with Ankara’s Eastern Mediterranean neighbours over gas deposits under the sea.

“The unresolved Cyprus issue is at the root of the drilling dispute that we have today in the eastern Mediterranean,” Faruk Kaymakci, Turkey’s deputy foreign minister in charge of EU affairs said via e-mail. “Turkish and Greek Cypriots should be able to talk and they should find a common solution” to the gas dispute in the sea around the island.

Turkey, which began drilling for oil and gas near Cyprus last year in a move that stoked tensions with EU members Greece and Cyprus, announced a new drilling mission off the island in January. Cyprus was divided in a Turkish invasion in 1974 after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Turkey supports a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the island.

Cyprus’s internationally recognised government in the Greek sector discovered offshore gas in 2011 but has been at loggerheads with Turkey over maritime zones around the island, where it has granted licences to multinational companies for oil and gas research.

Turkey, which does not have diplomatic relations with Cyprus’s government, said some areas where Nicosia has operations are either on the Turkish continental shelf or in areas where the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state has rights over any finds. In response, the Cypriot government called Turkey a “pirate state.”

Kaymakci said the European Union made a “major mistake” by accepting the Greek Republic of Cyprus as a member in 2004 following a failed UN attempt at reunification.

“The Greek Cypriots are ignoring the Turkish Cypriots, who are the co-owners of the island of Cyprus,” Kaymakci said. “The Greek Cypriots — they don’t want to have political equality with the Turkish Cypriots and they want to go ahead unilaterally in their drilling activities.”

The gas dispute developed into an international crisis as Turkey complained it has been excluded by its neighbours’ efforts to exploit the resources and ship gas to European markets. Ankara argues that Turkey, as the country with the longest coastline in the region, has a right to be involved in gas projects.

In November, Turkey signed a maritime delimitation deal with Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord, a move that infuriated Greece and Cyprus. On January 2, Greece, Israel and Cyprus agreed to build an undersea pipeline to carry gas to Europe. Turkey strongly opposes the project, which would see part of the 1,900km EastMed pipeline pass through waters it claims under its deal with the Tripoli government.

The issue could become a new problem for Turkey’s troubled relations with the European Union. Ankara wants to expand Turkey’s customs union with Europe to give its economy a boost but German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a January 24 visit to Istanbul that a decision about the customs union would need the support of all EU members, including Greece and Cyprus.

Turkey has done little to win the support of Athens and Nicosia.

Erdogan sent a warning to Turkey’s neighbours. He said any search and drilling activities or a pipeline were “no longer legally possible” without Libyan or Turkish approval.

Kristian Brakel, Turkey representative of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which is associated with the German Green Party, said Ankara was trying to leverage its Libya policies and the Cyprus issue to generate pressure on its adversaries in the gas dispute, with the aim of being included in talks.

Brakel said that in some aspects of the Cyprus issue Turkey had a point “but it is, of course, a little difficult to combine an offer to talk with threats.”

Kaymakci suggested the gas row could be turned into a win-win situation. He drew a comparison between the dispute and the European Coal and Steel Community, an organisation was created in the 1950s to bring Germany and France close together after World War II and that became the forerunner of today’s European Union.

“Oil and gas can be a good basis of cooperation in Cyprus as was the case [with] coal and steel to create the European Union,” he said.

Kaymakci called on Greek Cypriots to accept a proposal by the Turkish Cypriot side to set up a joint energy committee to deal with the gas issue and suggested that existing Turkish overland pipelines could be used to get Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe.