THE FOREIGN ministers of Cyprus, Greece and Egypt met when they were in New York last week in order to arrange the third tripartite summit which is expected to be held later this month in Athens. This would complete a full circle of tripartite summits, with one having been held in Cairo last year and a second in Nicosia in April.
Neither of these produced anything more tangible than some pictures of the smiling leaders shaking hands. There was also a declaration signed in each case – the Cairo and subsequently the Nicosia declaration – which spoke of economic co-operation and the strengthening of political ties among the three countries. While building good relations with neighbouring countries is good, we suspect that much more is made out of these summits than they actually have to offer.
President Anastasiades seems to relish them, as they support much of the government discourse regarding Cyprus’ geo-strategic value, the potential of becoming a regional energy centre and the need to forge alliances with neighbouring countries. Since the time of the Papadopoulos presidency the foreign ministry has been arguing about the need for geostrategic alliances, on the dubious grounds that these would strengthen Cyprus’ position in its dealings with Turkey.
Many politicians and newspaper columnists have repeatedly raised this issue, going as far as to suggest that geo-strategic alliances, based on energy co-operation, would be a better course to follow than engaging in negotiations for a settlement. The preferred country for a strategic alliance has been Israel – especially after Tel Aviv’s falling out with Ankara – and although there has been an exchange of visits between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Anastasiades as well as a three-way meeting also involving Greece, nothing tangible has been agreed. The mooted tripartite summit of Cyprus, Greece and Israel has been more difficult to arrange, probably because Netanyahu does not see much point to it.
Cyprus is once again trying to box above its weight, but the problem is that it does not really have anything attractive to offer its potential strategic allies. As things stand, it is only a bit-player in the eastern Mediterranean energy field, given the relatively small quantities of natural gas that have been discovered. This has not stopped the government’s relentless efforts to play up the country’s energy significance and pursue alliances that have little more than publicity value.
Anastasiades and his energy minister Giorgos Lakkotrypis insisted, against all logic, that Egypt would be buying natural gas from Cyprus even after the discovery of huge deposits of natural gas in Egypt’s Zohr field – almost 10 times the quantity in our Aphrodite field. What company would invest hundreds of millions, if not billions, on pipelines to take gas from the Aphrodite field to Egypt which has huge quantities of hydrocarbons – much closer to home – that would meet its energy needs for decades? Anastasiades and Lakkotrypis need to stop claiming they will be selling gas to Egypt, because nobody can take them seriously.
In fact the entire government narrative about energy alliances that would strengthen Cyprus seems to be collapsing. Our other potential energy partner, Israel, which has never made any concrete commitment in relation to energy, has reportedly been talking to Turkey about the possibility of supplying it with natural gas. Netanyahu informed Anastasiades about this during his short visit to the island recently, suggesting that both countries could sell gas to Turkey, once there was a Cyprus settlement.
Despite the rhetoric about the energy alliances, Anastasiades has had meetings with the representatives of a big Turkish energy company in the past, indicating he is pragmatic enough to explore all options. How ironic that all the government’s grand designs have fallen by the wayside and the only potential client for our natural gas is Turkey which is not only a very big market, but is also close enough to be supplied at a competitive price.
Admittedly, there could be no such deal without a settlement, but it is still looks like the only viable option for Cyprus to monetise its modest gas finds. Having a huge market like Turkey’s so close and a deal to supply it would also be a big incentive for oil companies to increase their exploratory drilling in the Cypriot EEZ, especially as there would also be regional stability.
This is the pragmatic way forward and not the much-touted tripartite summits, which are little more than publicity exercises. Even the dream of becoming a regional energy centre requires a settlement to be realised.