One of the protracted conflicts of Europe, the Cyprus conflict has defied resolution over almost half a century. Yet, until recently, it remained rather latent and attracted little attention outside the United Nations and the main state actors involved. These days Cyprus has once again taken centre stage in the geopolitical debates surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean instigating intensive discussions of possible new resource wars in the region. Thus, the three-day Geneva summit with a beginning on Wholly Wednesday followed prolonged tensions over offshore gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, accelerated by Ankara’s dispatch of drillships and naval vessels to the area last year, which have further highlighted the need for reconciliation in Europe’s only war-partitioned state.
Concept of securitization in energy politics
Energy has been a very essential dimension for the survival of the states since the end of the Cold War, used in almost every sector and thus has become the most important element influencing global politics and economics in our current international system. In this context, the fundamental reason behind the use of securitization theory in reference to energy is the actors’ increasing demand and dependence on finite energy resources with the issue of energy mainly securitized in line with this growing dependency. Besides, the issue of energy represents a highly significant tool in states maintaining their sustainable economic development and using it as a political influence towards other states. Furthermore, energy issues have gained particular importance due to the various difficulties occurring within the energy market, including limited sources of supply, high energy demand among global actors, energy dependency of the states, instability of energy-producing regions, and using energy as a political tool against the consumer countries.1
Therefore, if one analyses the process in relation to the Cyprus energy resources, the availability pillar of energy security which means the exploratory context of gas reserves in the region that surrounds the island should be considered. Furthermore, the legal context as an accessibility pillar of energy security explains how the legal framework of availability indicator comes into play within the securitization procedure of the natural gas reserves. Finally, the historical context as the second parameter of the accessibility pillar should be conceived as a living process that links developments and their influence in the securitization procedure of the current events.2
Cyprus energy resources an old/new apple of discord
A long-running conjecture over massive natural gas reserves in the turbulent region of the Eastern Mediterranean and in Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone became a reality during 2011 when official reports of the exploration were released. As it is known, the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey have been engaged in a dispute over the extent of their exclusive economic zones (EEZ), apparently fostered by oil and gas exploration in the area. However, hydrocarbons exploration offshore attracted greater attention since subsea drilling by the Republic of Cyprus began south of the island in September 2011. This was when a long running maritime dispute involving the Greek Cypriots, the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey reached crisis levels.3 Moreover, in February 2011, neither Greek nor Turkish Cypriots could fulfil their potential on an island whose future was divided, uncertain, militarised and facing new economic difficulties. Turkey’s European Union (EU) membership negotiations were at risk, and with Cyprus out of NATO and Turkey in, their disputes continue to hamstring EU-NATO cooperation. The start of offshore drilling had put these threats into sharper focus when the Republic of Cyprus, with the help of U.S.-based Noble Energy Inc., started offshore drilling south of the island and discovered significant gas reserves in the Aphrodite field, where drilling started. It considered that it had a sovereign right to drill in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which it had delineated with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel, but not Turkey, Syria or Greece. Further complicating the situation, Noble Energy’s operating company was 30 percent owned by Israeli interests and the Aphrodite field is partly in Israel’s EEZ. Turkey also had frictions with both Cyprus and Israel, which had signed defence and cooperation agreements. Greek Cypriot drilling thus provoked a harsh reaction, with Ankara sending ships close to Greek Cypriot installations, signing maritime boundary agreements with the Turkish Cypriots, delineating the continental shelf between the Turkish coast and the north of the island, beginning its own gas prospecting off Cyprus, and announcing it will drill on land in the north on behalf of Turkish Cypriots. Although the Republic of Cyprus had a sovereign right to explore and exploit inside its maritime zones, its unilateral start of exploration undermined the fragile reunification talks.
Contested maritime boundaries and exploration of natural gas deposits off the divided island are also the sources of the current dispute. The fact that potentially huge gas fields have been discovered in the waters around Cyprus, has enormously increased the stakes of the energy game in the Mediterranean. However, due to the location of Cypriot reserves along with the frozen Cyprus conflict, in all its complexity, found the country confronting a new reality. The pending question of how to optimally handle this new environment of opportunities and threats, unambiguously arouse suspicion could the rich energy findings be a blessing or a curse for Cyprus.
Additionally, to aggravate an already difficult situation, the traditional sources of maritime disputes between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, coincided with another set of interlocking geopolitical tensions and energy disputes in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and a group of countries including France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The emerging process among the latter was discussed on the basis that co-operation has a defensive character and aims at stability and peace, offering the possibility of facilities in the Cypriot ports, exercises and is, of course, related to the safe exploitation of natural gas in the EEZ of Cyprus. As such, its scope has broadened to include new issues, which in turn, have qualitatively changed the nature of the crisis. Hence, along with the aforementioned energy discoveries it additionally incorporated and the gradually emerging Libyan predicament.
Turkey’s Libya policy, which Turkey hopes, among other goals, to address its chronic economic problems, has served its strategy of disruption in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey signed two memoranda of understanding with Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in November 2019: the Delimitation of Maritime Jurisdiction Areas in the Mediterranean Sea and the Security and Military Cooperation Agreement. According to this deal, the proposed Israel-Greece-Cyprus gas pipeline would have to partially go through maritime areas claimed by Turkey, thereby conveying Turkey’s intention to disrupt any projects that aimed to circumvent it. Not only has this step further increased tension between Turkey and Greece, but it also paved the way for Greece to sign a similar deal with Egypt in August 2020 to delimitate their respective maritime jurisdictions. The Turkish-Libyan deal conflicts with Greece’s view of its own maritime boundaries, while the Greek-Egyptian deal does the same to Turkey.
Moreover, acutely aware of its isolation in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has recently made several gestures toward Egypt to explore whether it can find a compromise with Cairo in Libya, hoping that such an accommodation will have repercussions on the eastern Mediterranean crisis.
Furthermore, Turkey has formally protested against a new deal which plans to build an underwater electricity cable connecting Cyprus, Greece and Israel. After Ankara has argued that the planned route of the cable passes through Turkish territorial waters, Turkish officials have presented diplomatic protest notes to Greek, Israeli and EU diplomats in Ankara, stating that the three countries needed to seek Turkey's permission- it must approve any work carried out on the project to implement the world's longest submarine electricity cable, over a thousand kilometres long and expected to be funded by the European Union.
The situation, however, hit the peak with new scenarios in the Cyprus EEZ and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean implying the East Med pipeline is changing its course. The scenario which until recently was on the table wanted that it starts from the Leviathan field in Israel, but instead of going to Cyprus, acquires a new direction to Egypt. The same scenario suggested the pipeline to continue its passage overland (and no longer underwater) to the Egypt-Libya border and then to Crete passing through the area of the demarcated Greek-Egyptian EEZ.
Once again it seemed as if international politics do not entail permanent allies but solely permanent interests. As well that simultaneously, another narrative of the foreign policy of the Republic of Cyprus, which has been intensively cultivated in recent years, was collapsing. Hence, the tripartite collaborations on energy planning having as their central element - the emergence of Cyprus as an energy hub through East Med - was obviously highly jeopardized.
The probable reasons, according to sound experts on topic for the Republic of Cyprus to be left out of the equation could have been found in the cost of the pipeline as well in a series of practical difficulties in implementation. The depth of the sea between Cyprus and Crete is huge, so this implies technical difficulties. An additional reason could be that when the East Med pipeline was designed, neither the Egypt-Israel agreement nor the (partially) delimited Greece-Egypt EEZ had been signed. Finally, the fourth reason that has to do with the geopolitical data was the troublesome behaviour of Turkey within the Cypriot EEZ.
Still, despite the new scenarios in the Cyprus EEZ and throughout the Eastern Mediterranean speculating the East Med pipeline to change course, the Cyprus government denied that such a thing is true, clarifying that the planning or plans for the East Med route have not changed. Moreover, for the first time, the East Med pipeline operator (IGI POSEIDON) has made a public announcement as the most competent to talk about the realism of the project, at a time when it has been indirectly and vaguely challenged. Explaining that no change of route is foreseen for East Med, which concerns Israel, Cyprus and Greece, he referred to the possibility of a line, additional and not alternative, from Egypt.
In support of the abovementioned statements, it should be clarified that the deposits that have been proven to have been discovered in the Israeli and Cypriot offshore areas have the potential to export 30 billion Km2/year after the service of the regional markets. Accordingly, in addition to East Med, there is the possibility of operating the existing liquefaction plant in Egypt (Damietta and Idku) for about 10 billion m2, which confirms that the East Med pipeline does not compete with the existing liquefaction plant in Egypt, but that it is completely complimentary.
Lastly, although the opportunity for Cyprus to upgrade its geopolitical position, considering the developments around East Med and the Euroasia Interconnector, if implemented is very great and offer huge opportunities, the most important thing for Cyprus, according to other profound estimates, is to create the conditions for others around it to be interested in defending their interests through its own. Because, if the current Eastern Mediterranean crisis remains unaddressed in a proper manner, the region will be at risk of new crises. Moreover, any new conflict provides an opening for other complicating actors to step in. Obviously, a paradigm shift is needed. The gas can drive the communities further apart and increase discords, or it can provide an opportunity for officials from all sides, including Turkey, to sit down and reach agreements on the exploitation and transportation of this new find.
Could the Cypriot hydrocarbons improve the ongoing dialogue?
So much had happened since 2017, when the previous five-party summit took place in Crans-Montana for a solution to the Cyprus problem, that one could expect progress during the informal exploratory talks of the new five-party meeting in Geneva. As for the general context, the most important development was the exclusion of the EU. Another issue was that US President sharp confrontation with his Turkish counterpart effectively deactivated Washington and precluded any possibility of mediation, as has often happened in the past. Finally, the UK's exit from the EU allowed the Boris Johnson government to advance a new policy globally with only a binding reference to NATO. However, a Foreign Office representative rejected the allegations that British Foreign Secretary Dominique Raab had tabled a proposal during the informal talks in Geneva, which deviated from the United Nations and the UN General Assembly.
Formally, things remained as they were, but in essence, Ankara changed directly the basis for a solution to the Cyprus problem. Forty-seven years of immobility, combined with Turkey's illegal investigations in Cyprus, did not create the conditions for a way out. The new Turkish approach practically means the option of a two-state solution that would ultimately legitimize Cyprus’s division. The distance between the positions of the sides makes the announcement of a formal negotiation process immediately after the conclusion of the informal Geneva conference as a remote scenario.
With such divergent views, analysts say it will be a miracle if the estranged communities agree to continue the talks at all. But against a backdrop of geopolitical brinkmanship, other factors have also emerged that could help bridge a divide that has seemingly become ever more intractable with the passage of time. The prospect of this costly tit-for-tat should make all recommit to a comprehensive settlement at the island, divided politically since Greek Cypriots seized control of the Republic of Cyprus in 1963 and militarily since a Turkish invasion in 1974 created a Turkish Cypriot zone on its northern third. Hence, even in the absence of an overall Cyprus settlement, the parties should re-examine the benefits of independent confidence-building moves, seek mutual advantage and avert a deepening of the crisis by taking certain steps specific to the energy issue.
New paradigm as an alternative route to examine security discourses
The unresolved Cyprus problem is no longer comfortable for the international community because it affects stability and security in the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore international community needs to advance a more imaginative foreign policy and broader regional vision. Almost a decade ago the prominent analyst in his valuable study envisioned the current developments pointing out the possible disadvantages and consequences of the recently implemented initiatives.4
In addition to the already existing, at the core of any new proposals the idea that the Eastern Mediterranean should be treated as a shared common space should be incorporated. The political dialogue should succeed for the benefit of all interested parties and it must be supported by all the countries in the region. Because it is the common interest to have stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region, otherwise it will affect all the energy-related plans. Reaching a settlement of the conflict over its strategic findings should advance the cause of cooperation offering incentives for peaceful and fruitful exploration of energy resources. Should this ever come to happen, Cyprus would be able to play an important role in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as on the wider European energy stage.
1 Sezer Özcan, Securitization of energy through the lenses of Copenhagen School, 2013 Orlando International Conference, 21-23 March, 2013, West East Institute, Orlando/USA.
2 Vasileios P. Karakasis, Energy Security and the Cyprus Question: “Securitization” of Energy in the Eastern Mediterranean, Politikon: IAPSS Political Science Journal Vol. 27.
3 Ayla Gürel Fiona Mullen Harry Tzimitras, The Cyprus hydrocarbons issue: Context, positions and future scenarios, PCC Report 1/2013.
4 Demetrios A. Theophylactou, Geopolitics, Turkey’s EU accession course and Cyprus: power balances and ‘Soft Power’ calculations, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies Vol. 12, No. 1, March 2012, 97–114.