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Cyprus has gas for Europe. A decades-old conflict is keeping it untouched

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NICOSIA — In Europe’s frantic search to end its dependence on Russian energy, there’s an untapped resource: The waters around Cyprus. 

Yet a decades-old conflict between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece — rooted in Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus — is stymying efforts to explore and extract any natural gas lying beneath the Mediterranean Sea.

Turkey wants a say in how any profits are made off the island’s riches, ensuring the benefits flow to the Turkish Cypriot community. Ankara also wants any gas in the region to run across its territory en route to Europe. Athens, meanwhile, supports plans to move gas via Cyprus and Greece. 

Toss in the fact that shipping out gas reserves from Israel, Egypt and Lebanon are also involved in these negotiations and the result is gridlock. 

Initially, there was hope that unity over the war in Ukraine would convince countries to set aside any grievances in favor of helping the EU end the energy payments stuffing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war chest. In March, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even met, fueling anticipation that a détente might be on the horizon.  

Not so. 

Just two months later, Erdoğan has cut off ties with Mitsotakis and Greek authorities have placed their forces on high alert, citing Turkish threats. Any hope of rapprochement appears dashed. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants a say in how profits are made in Cyprus, ensuring the benefits flow to the Turkish community | Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

The result is that 15 years after Cyprus announced its first licensing round and 11 years after the discovery of the first big gas field off the island, Cyprus is back at square one. No gas is being piped out and no decision has been made on how it could be combined with other reserves in the region and shipped to the rest of Europe. 

In Cyprus, there’s little surprise that the optimistic plans have collapsed. 

“Bearing in mind the recent past and generally our experience with Turkey, we were not so naive as to believe that Turkey changed its attitude towards either Greece or Cyprus overnight,” said Kornelios Korneliou, a senior official with the Cypriot Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Cypriots are now fretting that the rising tensions will discourage energy companies from continued investment and exploration, hobbling an expansion of fossil fuel revenues seen as crucial for a country already wobbling over a loss of the considerable business Russians once brought to Cyprus.

“Energy could be a good platform for reconciliation in politically laden regions, like Cyprus and beyond, but unfortunately, it has become yet another chapter in the book of the conflict,” said Harry Tzimitras, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo Cyprus Center. 

Old conflicts beget modern fights

Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus split the island into a Turkish Cypriot north — a state only Turkey recognizes — and a Greek Cypriot south, an EU country widely recognized internationally as the Republic of Cyprus. 

Since then, the frozen conflict has played out in a series of proxy fights over maritime boundaries and surrounding natural resources. 

Those squabbles became more fraught in recent decades when Cyprus started allowing companies to search for natural gas fields in its exclusive economic zone; in 2011 Aphrodite field was discovered. Turkey says Cyprus must abstain from any action in these waters, and has launched its own exploration vessels flanked by warships. In 2019, the EU hit Turkey with sanctions for unauthorized drilling off the Cyprus coast. 

So years later, the gas bonanza has never arrived, despite a host of major energy companies angling to profit off the region. 

There’s a joint effort between ExxonMobil and Qatar Energy to extract gas from the area. And another between Eni and Total is due to start in the coming weeks, according to Natasa Pilides, the Cypriot minister of energy, commerce and industry.

Cyprus also expects a Chevron-led consortium to come up with suggestions on the Aphrodite deposit.

“Τhere is a need to accelerate the programs concerning both the development of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean region and the use of natural gas as a transitional fuel in the period up to 2050,” Pilides told POLITICO.

The drilling operations will give a better picture of undersea deposits and pave the way for discussions on how to ship out any gas — crucial to making the projects economically viable.

A possible solution could be connecting the Aphrodite field with an Egyptian terminal. A Greek company also just submitted a proposal to Cypriot officials that would link Israeli gas fields to Cyprus via a small pipeline, while a floating liquified natural gas plant constructed near the island would serve as a distribution point for the rest of Europe. 

Then there’s a proposal for a cheaper, alternative pipeline that would run through Turkey. The idea was revived after relations recently warmed between Turkey and Israel. 

“Why should it take a crisis like the war in Ukraine or an earthquake to remember that we need to solve our problems?” said Burak Özügergin, Turkey’s ambassador to Athens. 

“As for energy in the Eastern Mediterranean region, there is a geopolitical dimension as well as an economic dimension, which together impact the feasibility of an energy project,” Özügergin added. He argued that Turkey needs to be involved, saying: “We are not only a busy hub but also a huge market.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu doubled down on this stance in recent weeks, saying Turkey would be the only outlet for Israeli gas if it decides to export to Europe. 

Pilides, the Cypriot energy minister, complained that the ongoing stalemate harmed not only Cyprus but the international community.

“It would be very positive to include a possible solution to the Cyprus problem in this whole discussion so that there is a solution that takes advantage of all the opportunities that exist in the region and involves everyone,” she said. 

And Pilides added: “The same issues that are being raised about EastMed will also arise regarding a pipeline from Israel to Turkey, geopolitical issues or technical economic issues.” 

Politics at play

There’s another factor looming over the situation: elections. 

Greece, Turkey and Cyprus will all hold elections by 2023 at the latest — one of the reasons few expect any significant de-escalation between Turkey or Greece.

“Election campaigns can be notorious for presenting opportunities for abuse,” said Özügergin.

“Maybe it is the cynic in me,” he added, “but don’t you think it is a bit too convenient to have something to complain about with regards to ‘Turkish aggression’ just around the time that there are important decisions to be made by third parties about their own relationship with us?” 

The Cypriots blame Ankara, saying they don’t see any desire from Turkey to deal with either the energy question or the broader issue of talks with the other half of the island before the 2023 elections. 

“The danger here is to create new de facto situations either in our sea or on the ground which will certainly kill any prospect of resuming negotiations for a solution to the Cyprus problem,” said Korneliou, the Cypriot foreign ministry senior official.

Earlier this year, the Cypriot foreign minister presented a series of confidence-building measures in a bid to restart peace talks with the Turkish Cypriots, but they haven’t worked. 

“The measures are still on the table,” said Pilides. “I really hope that they will receive some serious evaluation from the Turkish Cypriot side.”

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