Is the hydrocarbons crisis the final nail in the coffin?

Is the hydrocarbons crisis the final nail in the coffin?

Since the two sides in Cyprus have agreed that the status quo is unacceptable and have decided to replace this with a power-sharing arrangement based on the political equality of its inherently constitutive communities, then both sides should behave in a way that is compatible with the power-sharing objective and not in a way that helps sustain the status quo. 

The Cyprus issue has transcended its borders with the discovery of offshore natural gas. The complex nature of overlapping hydrocarbon claims, burdened with the multiple problems of our region and on-going grievances between stakeholders, make the issue more complicated. 

We have seen what unilateralism, non-settlement, or the absence of an agreement on how to proceed, could lead to in 2014-2015. The lesson from that experience was that the critical need for cooperation on hydrocarbons could be the new “catalyst” for settlement, as well as being the “strong glue” of the broader security structure of the region. The current round of negotiations that kicked off in May 2015 was based on this logic and premise.

In early 2016, without regard to the experience of 2014-2015 and at a time when settlement talks were supposedly making progress, the Greek Cypriot side decided to open up a third licensing round. The Turkish Cypriot side and Turkey promptly made their protestations but, without prejudice to their rights, tolerated this move with the expectation that an agreement would be reached before the licensing process was completed and put into effect. 

Such unilateral initiatives are incompatible with the spirit and objective of the current talks, for which the window of opportunity is now closing, and carry serious implications for both the Turkish Cypriot side and Turkey. These need to be looked at separately.

As a politically equal party engaged in power-sharing negotiations and as a co-owner of hydrocarbon resources, the Turkish Cypriot side cannot accept to be sidelined in the negotiations about the future of these resources. 

To address this challenge, the Turkish Cypriot side has had an ongoing constructive offer since 2011 that aims at facilitating cooperation on the subject throughout the island. Such cooperation at the practical level would also help the political settlement process and at the same time could open up the door for cooperation with Turkey. The sharing of the water from Turkey could also be among the subjects to be addressed. It has not been possible to give life to this constructive proposal, and despite the imminent crises, the Greek Cypriot side refuses to discuss the hydrocarbons issue at the talks.

As for Turkey, which is another key stakeholder, customary international law provides that if a conflict arises between the interests of a coastal state and any other state/states, the conflict should be resolved on the basis of equity, bearing in mind the relevant circumstances and the respective importance of the interests of the involved party or parties. 

Being one of the countries with the largest population and longest coastline on the Mediterranean (569 miles), Turkey is entitled to a corresponding share of its resources under the principle of “equity.” Parts of EEZ plots 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7 declared by the Greek Cypriot side overlap with the continental shelf declared by Turkey. 

Unless unilateralism on hydrocarbons is promptly seized and steps taken in the direction of cooperation, starting with the two co-owner communities, this issue could put the final nail in the coffin of bi-communal and bi-zonal federalism and could turn the discovery into a curse. 

There are lessons to be learnt from the latest Turkish and Israeli rapprochement. 

*M. Ergün Olgun is a former Turkish Cypriot negotiator.