Turkey should be cautious against Greek Cypriot gas drilling

Turkey should be cautious against Greek Cypriot gas drilling

There is no question that the best option for the Greek Cypriot administration is to form a joint commission with the Turkish Cypriots to manage ongoing hydrocarbon activities off the island, on the grounds that all future produce will belong to both communities. 

At the outset, this proposal may not seem realistic given the situation on the ground in Cyprus. But in fact it constitutes one of the best options for both the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Such a move could have important consequences. 

First, it could diffuse the tension in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greek Cyprus, allowing the latter to continue to its oil and natural gas exploration activities around the island. Second, such a partnership could set an example of joint action taken by both sides for a future united Cypriot state. In overall terms, a Greek Cypriot decision to abandon unilateralism when it comes to the oil and gas reserves of the island would likely open a new page between the two peoples.

Of course, we are a long way from there. Instead, what we are close to is continued tension in the region as the Greek Cypriots try to sign more contracts with big global energy companies to turn this rift into an international dispute between Turkey and the rest of the world. They are in an effort to capitalize from Turkey’s poorly managed foreign policy, especially with the United States and some European nations.

Turkey’s recent blockage of an exploration vessel belonging to Italy’s ENI was one of the consequences of this tension. ENI’s Saipem 12,000 left the region to Morocco after Turkey’s intervention, but there are reports that the U.S.’s Exxon will also be involved in exploration activities in one of the blocks off the island.

This risky situation is well observed by Ankara. “Both southern and northern Cyprus have rights on the oil and gas to be explored there. We cannot approve any sides’ unilateral move,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters travelling with him in Africa.

If [Greek Cypriot President Nikos] Anastasiades wants to move in an honest way, there is one thing he should do: Reach a negotiated deal with northern [Cyprus] on how and by whom these activities should be carried out. Drilling needs to be conducted jointly and the produce should be shared. No step can be taken in that region without Turkey’s consent. Perhaps France will try to do this with Total in the future or the U.S. with Exxon. But it’s impossible for us to allow the violation of the rights of Turkey and Turkish Cyprus stemming from international law,” he added.

Erdoğan recently spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron on the issue and told reporters that his French counterpart called on him to adopt a “softer stance” on tension. Macron probably urged Erdoğan that using military means against a civilian vessel would not be tolerated, especially if that ship belongs to an EU member country.

Likewise, the U.S. position on this issue differs from the Turkish line. In an interview with the Hürriyet Daily News earlier this week, a senior U.S. official explained the main pillars of Washington’s approach on the issue. “First of all, we think the fact that there are major hydrocarbon finds in the Eastern Mediterranean is very positive thing for the prosperity and stability of the entire region,” the official said.

“The U.S. position on exploration differs from that of the Turkish government. We have made clear for years that we think it is reasonable for companies to engage in exploration, with the understanding that any eventual economic benefits should be shared equitably by all the people of the island in the context of an agreement. That has not changed,” the official added.

Turkey should be very cautious to not overreact to Greek Cypriot provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean and should avoid the use of military means against civilian explorations vessels. A repeat of such actions would further deteriorate Turkey’s already fragile bonds with the Western world, particularly ahead of a key summit between Ankara and Brussels in late March and amid ongoing diplomatic efforts to mend ties with Washington.

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