The current geopolitical developments necessarily focus on the unstable situation in Eastern Mediterranean. Despite of the widespread unrest in the geopolitical sub-systems of North Africa and the Middle East, the gradual shift of this situation to the Eastern Mediterranean, which is gaining momentum again, cannot be neglected. The increasing significance of this important area of supply and transit is justified not just on the basis of geopolitical factors. Due to the prevailing political circumstances, the increasing tensions among the leading geopolitical actors in the game of the growing conflict between East and West contribute further to it. The current situation in Europe and the World creates new preconditions for new manifestations in this area of confrontation among the world powers that create new spheres of interest on a new geopolitical map of the 21st century.
Geopolitical realities in the Eastern Mediterranean
It has become apparent that ice melting in the Arctic brought the challenges to the classical axioms of Sir Halford Mackinder and Nicholas Spykman, according to which the containment of the Russian factor and Moscow’s suspension from accessing the so-called ‘warm waters’ represents a diachronic priority for the Anglo-Saxons, where the Turkey (previously the Ottoman Empire) had a crucial role due to the Bosporus Straits and the Dardanelles. Although the usefulness of Turkey was always undisputable, the new sea routes via the Arctic nowadays urge Ankara to look for other factors which could possibly improve its geostrategic importance. As another important factor, huge energy and bio – resources, influenced the tendency of Russia to use the opportunity of expanding to this area. Consequently, as far as the gains from accessing the Mediterranean remain of high cost and low benefits for Russia in comparison with the Arctic option, Turkey’s role could possibly diminish in this context. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that one of the EU’s top priorities is to diversify its energy imports at the expense of Russia. On the same basis, Russia’s reaction via ‘pipeline diplomacy’ to NATO’s expansion to its strategic backyard, represents an additional factor in an already complex situation. Therefore, the new-found reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean are becoming extremely important in relations of Russia and the ‘US-EU axis’. Of course, a main field of interest and competition concerns the energy exploitation since these reserves may be complementary in a broader system of energy supply towards the EU member-states. A favorable proposal for the energy transfer to the European markets deals with an undersea pipeline from Israel to Greece via Cyprus (East-Med). Such a possibility could provoke great anxiety to Ankara since in this way it would be circumvented1.
Energy as a geopolitical factor for the consolidation in Eastern Mediterranean
The common strategic perception of the Eastern Mediterranean area of Athens, Nicosia and Jerusalem have caused the strengthening of their political, diplomatic, economic and military relations, aiming at the preservation of stability in the area. This geostrategic alliance has been created in order for the three states to cope in the best possible manner with the contemporary and future challenges in the regional and the international arena. However, the geopolitical factor of energy is the one that guarantees long term collaborative ties among them. The discovery, extraction and exploitation of the hydrocarbon neo-reserves within the Greek, Cypriot and Israeli consecutive Exclusive Economic Zones, (EEZs), represents the catalyst that could reinforce even further their cooperation2.
The majority Greece’s neo-reserves area concentrated east of the island of Crete. Since there are approximately 6 trillion m3 of natural gas and 1,7 billion barrels of oil, their sustainability is estimated at 100 years. In addition, the Ionian and Aegean Seas and the East Mediterranean have reserves of energy resources that can cover further needs as an exportable product. Israel’s energy reserves are estimated to approximately 2,5 trillion/m3 and it is estimated that they are can adequately cover its domestic energy needs for the next 3 decades( along with a certain volume of exports). Finally, Nicosia’s domestic needs which rely on oil, means that the great part of its approximately 2,5 trillion natural gas neo-reserves, can be exported. It should be noticed that the discovery of the Zohr gas field does not downgrade the significance of the existing neo-reserves of the area. On the contrary, adjoining the Cypriot EEZ and block 11, this discovery has been increasing the possibility for a similar one by Cyprus. Moreover, the aforementioned increasing accumulation of energy mixture, has reinforced not just the financial viability of East-Med, but has contributed as well to the geopolitical value of the area, bringing Athens, Nicosia and Jerusalem even closer3.
Total in the new great game in the Eastern Mediterranean
By the end of 2017 French energy giant Total expected approval from the Greek parliament to explore for oil off the western coast of Greece. Greece and a consortium made up of Total, Italy’s Edison and Hellenic Petroleum had signed a lease agreement to search for oil and gas in the Ionian Sea. Additionally, the Total, as major energy player, which produces and markets fuels, natural gas and low-carbon electricity, encouraged by major gas discoveries off Egypt and Israel, shown great interest in Mediterranean blocks of Cyprus. Moreover, in a consortium with Exxon Mobil and Hellenic Petroleum it also expressed interest in exploration at two sites off the island of Crete, prompting Greece to launch a tender4. During the following year, the Total's tendency to expand its search for gas off the south coast of Cyprus was expressed after a meeting with Cyprus President Anastasiades and Energy Minister Lakkotrypis. According to the words of the Total's Middle East exploration chief, the company applied for an exploration license in Block 8 where Italian company Eni was already secured a license to drill. Total's interest was perceived in Nicosia as “very important development”, especially after Eni called off drilling in Block 3 due to a blockade by Turkish warships. Very soon, as the reaction to Ankara` announcements about the possibility of drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean during that summer, top French government officials openly defended Cyprus’s right to explore and exploit its natural resources. Apart from the leading role played by oil giant Total5, the entry of other French businesses in different areas of the Cypriot economy was noticed.
While the United States has been trying to play an auxiliary role in the Greece-Cyprus-Israel partnership in areas such as security, France, being traditionally present in this area, has been included in the other trilateral cooperation (Greece, Cyprus and Egypt). Paris has started developing a multifaceted presence in Cyprus, while the France’s interest in playing a role in regional development was confirmed by Foreign Affairs Minister Le Drian during his visit to Nicosia, when he noted in an interview with Greek Kathimerini, that "President Macron had urged his Turkish counterpart Erdogan to desist from increasing tension in the Eastern Mediterranean, while also assuring Greece and Cyprus of France’s vigilance and solidarity"6. It has become obvious that the growing international interest in the Eastern Mediterranean is not limited to the energy sector nor to the role of the United States7.
After the announcement of Cypriot media that the French company Total "seems to be "locking" the concession of "Block 7" in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus, which was once again considered very important for Nicosia as it also represented a form of response to the Turkish challenges8, it has become even more clear that "a high-stakes game" is unfolding in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Taking into consideration that the new alliances and conflicts driven by competition over control of tremendous gas deposits are in focus of international community, the question arising is how to respond to these developments. The exploitation of energy resources challenges security situation to such an extent that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres` warned that exploratory drilling for hydrocarbon resources off the coast of Cyprus risks conflict. Nevertheless, energy and maritime security cooperation in the Mediterranean and beyond between Israel and Egypt and broader efforts to increase coordination with Cyprus and Greece in the face of growing Turkish opposition reflect the creation of new relationships that are not defined by old conflicts9.
In support of these, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), launched in January in Cairo including Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories has formalized increasing energy ties in the region, where recent natural gas discoveries have led to increasing tensions. During the second meeting for the forum aiming the development of energy infrastructure this July in Cairo, it was revealed that France might consider joining EMGF since Paris "is looking forward to importing natural gas from Egypt and East Mediterranean countries"10. The following reaction of French President, in a show of solidarity with Cyprus, when he sent a stern message to Turkey that Paris and the European Union will not tolerate violations in the Eastern Mediterranean11 confirmed the tendencies of France to address the problems in area in a manner that strengthens rather than endangers broad cooperation among stakeholders.
The latest announcements increasingly engaging international attention about signing of the Cyprus Agreement with Total and ENI concerning item 7 of the Cyprus EEZ provoked the Turkey's strong reactions about emerging new situation. Seismic surveys conducted by US companies in this area have found that there is a high probability of a natural gas deposit that is five times more than the Egyptian Zohr. Taking into consideration that Zohr's estimated value is € 200 billion, the discovery of $ 1 trillion source is more than enough to explain Anakara's attitude.
Recent developments have indicated that we are going through a period of "structural reshuffling" on the world economic map. In conjunction with the general instability in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region they make it imperative to redefine priorities and actions to maintain economic growth. Assuming that the EU's attitude towards the Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbons focuses on the potential future diversification of energy, many things could change in Europe. In order to put all the pieces of regional puzzle together we should take into account that important Western players have been getting in on the action, particularly France, which is involved in exploration for the hydrocarbon but also in other areas such as security and the economy. Although France does not want to break ties with Ankara, statements by French officials in bilateral relations with Greece and Cyprus have recently adopted a slightly different tone12.
Considering that the developments in the energy sector, and particularly the planning and the construction of pipelines, are closely related to the wider geostrategic interests and national policies, the energy-related issues will increasingly define the region and the policy agenda as the century progresses. The recently discovered energy reserves in the adjacent EEZs of the Eastern Mediterranean, as the facts that advocates in favor of the immediate construction of the East-Med, promise to increase the effectiveness of the aforementioned geostrategic conjunctions transforming simultaneously the area to a global energy strategic interest spot. Indeed, if the East-Med is realized, it will be able to transfer, in the first phase, the Israeli and Cypriot hydrocarbons from the off-shore neo-reserves via Greek sovereign territory and EEZ to Italy and central Europe. This could possibly represent the beginning of the EU’s energy emancipation.
Obviously, the emerging situation in the Eastern Mediterranean create Favourable prospects for Total in pursue of his company vision of becoming responsible energy major.
1 M. Troulis. Review: Geopolitical Realities in the Greece-Cyprus dipole, Solutions and Alibis by professor Ioannis Th. Mazis, Civitas Gentium, 6:2 (2018) 104-113.
2, 3 Mazis I.T, Sotiropoulos I.P, The role of energy as a geopolitical factor for the consolidation of Greek-Israeli Relations, Regional Science Inquiry, Vol. VIII, (2), Special Issue 2016, 27-44.
4 Total expects Greek parliament approval for offshore exploration, CEO says.
6 Total wants to expand gas search off Cyprus coast (21/05/2018).
7 An increasing French presence in the East Med (20/11/2018).
8 Total, ENI reportedly granted Cyprus Block 7 (10/5/2019).
9 The new great game in the Eastern Mediterranean (29/06/2019).
10 France considering joining east Med Gas Forum, says ambassador (28/07/2019).
11 Macron sends stern warning to Ankara over Eastern Med (22/08/2019).
12 Θηριώδες κοίτασμα είναι ο λόγος για το “casus belli” της Τουρκίας στο “τεμάχιο 7” της κυπριακής ΑΟΖ… (22/09/2019).