Cyprus has right on its side. It declared its EEZ legally, following the internationally accepted UN law of the seas, UNCLOS. All its neighbours, except Turkey, accept this and most have agreed and ratified EEZ boundaries on this basis.
Even though Cyprus has right on its side, Turkey now has the might and it is prepared to use it to enforce its demands.
Cyprus is not in a position to respond or even defend its EEZ, especially given that Turkey’s exploration and drilling rigs are supported by frigates, corvettes, submarines, torpedoes, drones and patrol aircraft – creating a war zone in Cyprus’ EEZ – as the Turkish Ministry of Defense ‘proudly’ said in a statement this week.
Cyprus relies on the support of its neighbours, the international community and the EU. But even though this support is quite strong, recognising Cyprus’ right to develop its EEZ, it is not cutting any ice with Turkey. Neither do the limited measures applied so far by the EU.
The Cypriot press gleefully, but clearly misguidedly, reported that Yavuz’s withdrawal earlier in September from Cyprus EEZ, south of the Karpasia, was the result of technical problems, international political pressure, embargo by the US on drilling equipment and chemicals, or legal measures and international arrest warrants issued by Cyprus.
These pre-suppose that the main reason Yavuz, or Fatih, are drilling in Cyprus EEZ is to discover hydrocarbons. As I said repeatedly this is secondary. The main purpose is to stake Turkey’s and Turkish Cypriot claims in the Cyprus EEZ for the time as and when negotiations, any negotiations, start. The longer it takes the more extensive and more intransigent these claims become.
Let’s look into this, but dispassionately. Despite its might, Turkey feels isolated and encircled by what it sees as ‘unfriendly’ neighbours. It does not matter if this is the outcome of its own aggressive actions.
Turkey’s actions in Cyprus are supported by the great majority of its population – over 75% – and by all political parties. In fact, some of the political parties are more belligerent than the ruling AKP.
Its position has been described quite often by its Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Central to this is that as long as the resources of the East Med are not shared Turkey will continue its aggressive intervention. It considers delineation of EEZs without its participation invalid. It also considers its own claim of its continental shelf in the East Med a matter of ‘national sovereignty’ and non-negotiable – even though it does not conform to internationally accepted law.
Turkey is in favour of the ‘sharing’ of hydrocarbons around Cyprus, between the two communities on the island – but of course it remains to be seen what it means by ‘sharing’.
Cavusoglu said that “Unless this is done we will continue our activities there. We hope that there is agreement and that everyone gets what they are entitled to… If not, we will take our own steps. But we prefer to find a common path.”
That can happen only through negotiations and the starting point is a solution of the Cyprus problem.
As an EU member state, Cyprus benefits from strong support and solidarity with its rights – this is unequivocal. But what does this mean in practice?
Within the EU there are states that have strong links to and extensive trading arrangements with Turkey. Some consider these of higher priority than going beyond ‘moral’ support to Cyprus, into agreeing measures that might hurt Turkey.
But of paramount importance to the EU is the refugee situation in Turkey and the risk of an influx of migrants into Europe if Turkey opens the floodgates. So far this has limited action by the EU against Turkey in support of Cyprus, and this may not change.
The new Commission does not appear to believe in the effectiveness of sanctions and appears to be leaning towards all-embracing negotiations with Turkey. Already Commissioner Schinas said this week that the EU and Turkey should revisit their migration agreement, under a fresh perspective, and should also examine what this will entail away from “words and threats.”
What is needed in Cyprus is cool and measured thinking. Reacting to the situation with patriotic statements, indignation and condemnation – as we always tend to do – is understandable, but will not bring any solutions. In fact it draws Cyprus into Turkey’s game. So let’s take the issues one by one.
Cyprus is not in a position to stop Turkey and Turkey will not stop its aggression no matter what the condemnation is and where it is coming from. Cyprus cannot count on anybody – the EU, the US or the UN – to take any action on its behalf, other that verbal support.
But it should still use all passive resistance means available to it to confront this aggression.
Turkey is claiming a part of Cyprus’ EEZ that has low prospects for hydrocarbon presence. It can carry on drilling, but the likelihood of discoveries is low. All discoveries so far, and most prospects for new discoveries, are in parts of Cyprus’ EEZ not claimed by Turkey or the Turkish Cypriots – blocks 10 and 11 and the southern parts of blocks 6 and 7.
The oil and gas companies will not risk their personnel and drilling vessels to carry on with announced drilling programmes in direct confrontation of a belligerent Turkey. They have other priorities and can afford to wait and see what happens. The obligation to provide them with the conditions required to carry on with exploration rests with their licensor, Cyprus, not with their mother-countries.
Global gas prices are low and securing export markets for East Med gas is becoming increasingly challenging. And if we do secure some exports, margins will be low – they will not make us rich.
So, apart from our strong moral ground and the indignation that Turkey is blatantly violating our rights, confrontation is unlikely to yield any results, but risks aggravating a difficult situation further. And to what benefit?
Turkey is alluding to eventual negotiations. The EU appears unable – or unwilling – to apply meaningful sanctions and may prefer negotiations. The UN Secretary General wants to find common ground to enable the restart of the negotiations for solution of the Cyprus problem.
It is becoming important and urgent to find this common ground. Posturing and indignation alone, despite the catharsis it may provide, will not take us one step forward. The longer this takes the greater the risks become as Turkey escalates its aggressive actions.
Senior Fellow. Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council