Russia’s war in Ukraine, now in its fourth week, appears to have boosted the importance of the Eastern Mediterranean’s natural gas deposits. The EU has resolved to end its dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal by 2027. Whether it will find alternative, competitively priced supplies in five years to cover the 40 per cent of Europe’s gas consumption that is covered by Russia is questionable but the Eastern Mediterranean has now become an option, even if quantities are limited.
President Tayyip Erdogan, who has for years been trying to carve out a regional energy role for Turkey, which has no gas of its own, saw the opportunity and has begun work on making the most of it. Ten days ago he played host to Israeli President Isaac Herzog, the first Israeli head of state to visit Turkey since 2007, and he brought up the issue of energy. After the meeting he said he saw the visit as “an opportunity to develop our energy cooperation.” He also went into specifics, saying the two countries could work together to carry Israeli natural gas to Europe.”
Herzog was more guarded in his comments, but also spoke about the possibility of Israel-Turkey cooperation “that can positively affect this entire region we call home.” While this will not happen overnight, and it could take some time for the two countries to normalise relations, before there is any agreement on energy cooperation there is no doubt that both are keen to seize the opportunity presented. With high gas prices and the European market looking for new sources this is the ideal time for the exploitation of Eastern Mediterranean gas.
The issue was brought up again by Erdogan during Monday’s visit to Turkey by Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who did not mince his words. “In order not to be dependent on Russia we must be supplied by energy from different sources and from different countries,” he said. “Cooperation in the field of energy is very important, not only between Germany and Turkey, but also between the EU and Turkey,” added Scholz. The chancellor indirectly gave his seal of approval to the sending of Mediterranean gas to Europe via Turkey although no decision was taken and there will be much to do before any plan comes to fruition.
Meanwhile the Cyprus government appears completely disinterested in what is going on, sources at the presidential palace suggesting to media that the war in Ukraine could revive the EastMed pipeline, which was dismissed as unviable by the US a couple of months ago. Erdogan, who had vehemently opposed the EastMed project because it excluded Turkey from regional energy plans, saw the US position as backing for Turkey. On Friday it was reported, however, that the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), a Washington-based lobby group, was urging President Joe Biden to support the possible development of the EastMed pipeline. The deadline for the feasibility study for the pipeline is the end of this year.
Energy minister Natasa Pilides, asked about the EastMed on Wednesday, refused to raise expectations and sounded a note of caution. The EastMed project would be a more medium-term choice for the EU as it would take five years to complete. “Whether it will be built will definitely depend on the confirmed quantities available for export,” she said and pointed out that “at the moment the confirmed deposits are not enough, but if there is interest from Israel, then the EastMed could definitely be an option.” The implication was that if Israel made other arrangements, the project would not be viable, regardless of a positive feasibility study.
The reality is that the opportunity to supply gas to Europe is now – given the slowness with which the energy industry operates ‘now’ means the next couple of years – and not in five to six years’ time when the EastMed might be completed if it gets the go-ahead and everything goes according to plan. Israel is aware of this, as is Erdogan, who knows he should move now before Europe finds alternative sources of gas. There is also the US, which believes energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean, involving Turkey, would boost regional alliances and security. Even Greece-Turkey dialogue which is on the cards after last Sunday’s meeting between Erdogan and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis would be jeopardised by a possible revival of the EastMed project.
Instead of trying to talk up the EastMed to please public opinion, the Anastasiades government needs to give up this fantasy world and look at possible ways of Cyprus becoming a part of the new regional energy order being shaped. The failure of the much-trumpeted trilateral alliances to take any decisions of practical value showed that Cyprus is too small and powerless to shape regional energy planning much less so now that Europe and the US have decided Eastern Mediterranean gas could be part of the West’s strategy to limit European dependence on Russian energy.
What Cyprus can do – and this is what the government should be doing – is to put aside its delusions of being a key regional player and instead develop a plan that would enable it to become part of the evolving plans for regional energy. Being a bit-player might not have much gloss, but it is better than being excluded.