The perceived riches locked-in at the bottom of disputed, and fiercely-contested, seas may never materialise
By Charles Ellinas
Ostensibly the increasing conflicts in the East Med are all to do with control and exploitation of the hydrocarbons that, by all indications, the region is blessed with. But that appears to be the only blessing in an area otherwise besieged with conflicts, teetering on the brink of war.
But given global developments, especially in the energy sector, is that justifiable, or is the region stepping back in time? Is this mostly the outcome of Turkey’s aggressive pursuit of maritime territory and hegemony, inflamed by paranoia and deep-rooted enmities, that are not only outdated but should have no place in the future of the East Med?
The world, led by Europe, is moving away from fossil fuels and even though transition to clean energy may take a long time, with the increasing penetration of renewables we have entered an era of abundance of energy resources, including natural gas. This means that gas prices will remain low in the longer-term, making it commercially difficult to develop and sell expensive-to-produce East Med gas to global markets. Thus the perceived riches locked-in at the bottom of these disputed, and fiercely-contested, seas may never materialise.
In addition, the probability of significant hydrocarbon presence in the area between Cyprus, Kastelorizo, Crete and Egypt’s EEZ boundary – currently the bone of contention between Greece and Turkey – is low.
The areas considered to be of higher potential for hydrocarbon discoveries are: Egypt’s entire EEZ, the Levantine Basin that includes parts of Egypt, Israel and Cyprus EEZs – where Tamar, Leviathan and Aphrodite have been discovered – the area around the Cyprus/Egypt EEZ boundary – where Zohr, Glafkos and Calypso are – and south-west of Crete. None of these is being contested. The areas claimed by Turkey have mostly low probability of hydrocarbon presence.
It would be very anachronistic if, as a result of the pursuit of maritime control of areas of low economic potential – and not for the pursuit of hydrocarbons as often claimed – these disputes get out of control.
Room for negotiations?
Following the frenzy of the last three weeks, Greece and Turkey have been brought back from the brink of naval confrontation. Turkey’s Oruc-Reis is still roaming the seas south of Kastelorizo, but it is a Pyrrhic victory, if one can even call it that. Turkey’s aggressive maritime pursuits have not won it any friends or any international support – quite the contrary. The international community in its entirety is condemning it, with calls for settlement of these disputes through negotiations growing stronger by the day, led by the EU, through Germany, with US support – but avoiding stronger action, including sanctions.
As the situation has developed, Turkey has not even gained anything tangible through this belligerence. Some say that it has reinforced its claims to the contested areas, allowing Turkey to enter negotiations from a position of strength. But that plainly is not the case. These claims can be addressed only through eventual negotiations, and, as and when these come, everything will be on the table, subject to the levelling influence of international law.
Greece’s restraint has faced considerable internal criticism, but has won Greece universal international support. Through this the risk of naval confrontation has been averted, possibly for the longer-term.
Discussions between the two countries may resume late August/early September, following de-escalation and German/US mediation. The challenge remains to agree an agenda for negotiations. The likelihood may be that – in the event of a deadlock – these disputes are eventually referred to international courts, possibly the ICJ in The Hague, for mediation. This is the sensible way forward, that with EU and US help may prevail.
None of the EEZ claims in the East Med are clear-cut, with the right completely on one side or the other. Even globally, experience shows that the application of the UN law of the seas, UNCLOS, eventually led to agreements through negotiation, compromises and often referral to international courts. The East Med will not be any different.
So far EEZ agreements have been arrived at through negotiations between the directly involved parties. Unilateral declarations, or declarations ignoring the rights of others, however tenuous these may be, cannot solve the problems and cannot prevail.
Even Greece has followed a pragmatic approach in its recent EEZ agreements with Italy and Egypt. Both were based on UNCLOS, but with compromises that helped achieve agreement.
The Greece-Italy maritime agreement, signed in June, was based on coordinates agreed in 1977 – before the international implementation of UNCLOS – that appear to limit the influence of islands in the Ionian and deviate from the equidistance principle.
The Greece-Egypt agreement, on August 6, which provoked the wrath of Turkey, has only partially defined the EEZ boundary between the two countries – about 40 per cent – between the 26th and 28th meridians. It does not extend to the Libyan EEZ and to the east it avoids the area affected by Cyprus and Kastelorizo. This seems to have been done at the request of Egypt, as it considers these issues to be complex, especially in relation to Turkey.
Also, the agreed boundary does not seem to correspond to the equidistant line between Egypt, Crete, Karpathos and Rhodes, but in approximately a 56: 44 per cent division in favour of Egypt. But it is a positive first step.
Hence the Greek-Italian and Greek-Egyptian agreements leave ambiguities but also allow room for future negotiations on the remaining, non-agreed, EEZ boundaries – and perhaps, in the end referral to the ICJ. However, they are of great importance as a basis for future negotiations.
These are realistic agreements, unlike the extreme Turkey-Libya memorandum that completely ignores the rights of islands, even Crete. A memorandum that has been condemned by the EU and the US as “counterproductive and provocative”.
Pressure on Cyprus
In the meanwhile, Turkey is determined to maintain pressure on Cyprus, decoupling Cyprus problems from its disputes with Greece. Yavuz continues drilling south-west of the island and Barbaros is carrying out seismic surveys to the east. Through a newly issued Navtex, these may soon be joined by Turkey’s third drilling rig Kanuni.
Drilling by the international oil companies (IOCs) is unlikely to resume for a while yet, maybe not earlier than 2022. Not only do these problems make it difficult, but also the dire state of the global oil and gas industry, low prices, unprecedented losses so far in 2020, and major cuts in spending make most of expensive-to-develop East Med a lower priority for the IOCs.
Dr Charles Ellinas is Senior Fellow at Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council