NO AMOUNT of positive spin by the government can cloud the fact that Cyprus’ EU partners committed to precisely naught in terms of a tangible response to Turkey’s ongoing and escalating violations of the island’s maritime zones.
Nicosia was banking on an unequivocal show of support from the Europeans. But now that it didn’t get it, what next?
The conclusions of the European Council summit in Brussels amounted to a classic dodge and kicking the can down the road. It adopted conclusions “aimed at imposing targeted measures against Turkey’s illegal activities in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zones”.
In short, we shall see when we shall see.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Photos snapped at the Brussels confab show a sullen-looking Nicos Anastasiades trying to make a point to his European counterparts, who look more interested in having a chuckle.
Unsurprisingly, the following day Nicosia put on a brave face, insisting that so long as the European Council mentioned future measures against Turkey, it was a good outcome.
Had the government thought Turkey would not carry out its threats? Had it calculated the United States would have stopped Ankara drilling in the Cypriot EEZ? And how wise was it calculating the situation could be managed when they have an unpredictable Turkish leader opposite them?
“I do not believe the government was naive, to actually believe that Turkey would not carry out its threats” energy analyst Charles Ellinas tells the Sunday Mail.
“Perhaps it hoped for stronger support from the EU – in the form of sanctions. If it did, it was, and proved to be, a forlorn hope. Turkey is an important trading partner to many EU member states, but also importantly it holds the refugee key. If it opens the floodgates Europe could be swamped with refugees.”
If the government expected the situation could be managed, then it got it wrong.
“Experience shows that Turkey acts on whatever it says it will do. And if anyone believes that these actions are unpredictable, then that’s also wrong. Turkey has long-term plans and chooses the timing when to act on them for maximum effect. Its claims on Cyprus’ EEZ were drawn up at least six years ago.”
So where to, going forward? Is there anything Anastasiades can do to ease tensions, or will the standoff in the seas become a permanent fixture?
“Turkey will not back down and tensions will continue. Anastasiades must try to get the EU to act, with sanctions. Only serious sanctions can force Turkey to rethink. But the likelihood of succeeding is too small.
“Drilling will continue and if a gas discovery is made it will complicate things considerably. Turkey is creating a position of strength and control from which to negotiate at a later stage – under its own terms.”
Ellinas says it’s difficult to see the EU taking stronger action and applying serious sanctions.
As if to taunt Cyprus, on the same day of the European Council, Ankara launched its second drillship, Yavuz, which will reportedly head for a drilling site off the Karpas peninsula. At the time of writing, the drillship was still in the Sea of Marmara.
Is Turkey bluffing about drilling? No one can say for sure whether the first drillship, the Fatih, is engaged in drilling to the west of Paphos. If the government knows – and they must know – they aren’t saying. Either way, it’s moot: Turkey’s mere presence in the EEZ is a problem enough.
According to Ellinas, there is no reason to assume the Fatih is there for show.
“The drilling location was chosen based on earlier seismic surveys by the Barbaros. The official statement from Turkey is that it is drilling, planning to go to 5500 metres, which is about right in comparison to other discoveries around Cyprus, and they expect to complete this by end of July. There is no reason not to believe this.”
As far as can be told, the arrest warrants issued by Cyprus for the crews of the Turkish vessels have had little impact. At most, they may have temporarily slowed down operations as foreigners were reportedly replaced by Turkish nationals.
To another analyst, there’s still a glimmer of hope to deal with the dispute over hydrocarbons – provided that Nicosia forges a coherent plan. But the window is closing fast.
“The only way to resolve the Turkish Cypriot claims on the EEZ, which are backed by Turkey, is to solve the Cyprus problem,” says Toumazos Tselepis, an international law expert and former member of the Cyprus peace talks negotiating team.
A political settlement on Cyprus would go hand in hand with an agreement on hydrocarbons – this is practically inevitable at this point.
“However, to get there the stalled peace talks must first restart. But Nicosia says it cannot engage in negotiations whilst Turkey is violating its sovereign rights. And it has a point. But this is a vicious cycle, a Catch-22 which can be escaped only by re-launching peace talks.”
A Cyprus deal would take care of the maritime disputes to the east and southeast of the island.
That would still leave Turkey’s own claims in waters to the west. This is a question of delineating the respective maritime zones and EEZs of Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.
“Even with a solution, Turkey’s claims to the west of the island will remain, but at least these claims – overlapping with two or three offshore blocks – won’t affect Cyprus’ current energy programme in a substantial way. We can live with that.
“So take it step by step. First you address the eastern part of the EEZ – which is a real problem – and then focus on the west.”
But Nicosia can’t afford to waste time, Tselepis warns.
“Were Turkey to find gas west of the island, it’s likely they would lay a pipeline to Turkish shores – thus creating yet another fait accompli.”
Alternatively, Nicosia can fall back on the hope that the international community will pressure Turkey to back off.
But realistically the chances of that are slim, Tselepis says.