Energy could ‘energize’ the degenerating Turkish-EU partnership

Energy could ‘energize’ the degenerating Turkish-EU partnership

The decades long Turkish-EU relationship is under serious strain. Accession talks are no longer credible in both Ankara and Brussels. There are question marks, even over the modernization of the existing Customs Union (to add services and agriculture sectors) signed back in 1995 as part of the full membership process. New problems pop up as the channels of dialogue are not working properly and interests collide. 

Yet, both the EU and Turkey have strong strategic reasons to preserve and develop their partnership, as they share a common destiny, geography and security concerns. The increasingly tense relationship between the EU and Russia is another reason for the EU and Turkey to look seriously for credible channels for deeper co-operation. We need a genuinely positive and feasible agenda. The questions are: How to separate issues of strong disagreement or even confrontation from areas that could advance and foster closer cooperation; Is it possible for this to be done outside the stalled accession discussions; and would the two parties benefit enough from such a move so they engage in a meaningful way in it?

Infrastructure co-operation is one area of increasing mutual interest, while at the same time most of it is not in the area of potential confrontation. Turkey is the one economy that can connect the east and west and the north and south in regards to the EU. Turkey is a world leader in mega infrastructure investments. Over the past decade, the country is building tunnels, bridges, airports and canals, while its energy companies are contributing to massive pipeline projects spanning Eurasia, which will deliver Caspian, Russian and Middle Eastern oil and gas to European markets. Turkish firms are not only helping to address the infrastructure gap in Turkey itself, but also across the regions. The economic and political debate for the EU engagement with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative would also require close EU-Turkey dialogue.

The EU and Turkey need a powerful energy agenda detached from the accession process and the Energy Chapter—as these have been delayed or are close to termination for various reasons. In recent years, gas has been at the center of EU-Turkey energy co-operation. Gas politics and projects are highly visible and make for impressive announcements, but the impact might prove limited in practice, given the small scope of regional gas transit and trading. On the contrary, co-operation in other fields—such as electricity, growing renewables, energy efficiency, nuclear power and emissions trading—could bring real benefits for long-term energy, climate and environmental sustainability. It could even shore up the region’s shaky macroeconomic and geopolitical stability.

Energy is a particularly important field that attracts high business, political and public interest. International energy relations are often seen only through the prism of transborder gas infrastructure. There are a number of possible gas projects on the EU-Turkey diplomatic table, such as the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Turkish Stream pipeline I-II. However, the question of development of a liquid regional gas market is no less important than the pipeline-only focus. Turkey must be involved in this gas market debate and development.

There are other key energy areas that need to be included in the dialogue properly. Electricity infrastructure is one of them. Turkey already trades electricity with the EU and trading volume is likely to increase in the future. The Turkish grid operator, the Turkish Electricity Transmission Company (TEIAŞ), is an observer in the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) and the Energy Community. TEIAŞ is also a shareholder of the Coordinated Auction Office in South East Europe (SEE CAO). The EU and Turkey should work towards the acceleration of the electricity infrastructure and market integration and increasing the transborder transmission capacity. Such developments and any progress with the energy chapter could also be driven in the accession process.

The role of hydroenergy and nuclear power are other areas that need to find their proper place in EU-Turkey talks. Variable renewables that require larger territory to balance their variability and closer energy cooperation should also be a central topic in these talks.

Several other topics need more business-like and less politically colored discussion: Electric car infrastructure and projected regional power demand; gas demand projections that might significantly reduce the development of stranded assets; energy efficiency plans; cross-border air pollution; cross-border electricity demand management tools; cybersecurity of the increasingly digitalized energy systems. All these issues could be brought together into the emerging new approach to energy security.

In terms of governance, there are a number of important formats where Turkey could activate its participation. The EU-Turkey Summit is clearly one of them. Other EU-Turkey energy related formats could also be involved. The role of Turkey in the Energy Community could be reassessed and strengthened. Turkey could also establish relations with the Central and South Eastern Europe Energy Connectivity (CESEC) High Level Group of energy ministers.

Energy is a vital part of the EU’s increasingly strained relationship with Turkey. We need a broader EU-Turkey energy agenda that goes beyond oil and gas and incorporates the full spectrum of new sustainable energy aspects. There is a need for a new framework that does not depend on confrontational issues, like Cyprus gas. The framework does not have to be legally binding but open and project, business and security based. This bridge needs to be built separately from the accession negotiations, while at the same time should not be seen as a substitute of the accession process.

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