Despite the rhetoric about his determination to secure the resumption of talks for a Cyprus settlement as soon as possible, President Nikos Christodoulides’ official visit to Egypt – a little over a month after assuming office – sends mixed signals. It creates the impression that he is continuing the policy of his predecessor, who was under the illusion that by building strong relations with countries at odds with Turkey, the Republic would gain some sort of advantage, strategic or otherwise.

After meeting President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo, Christodoulides spoke of “his very clear political will to further strengthen the historically excellent Cyprus-Egypt relations.” There was a “common vision” for a “peaceful, stable and prosperous region in the eastern Mediterranean, and the broader Middle East,” he said, before extolling the energy cooperation between the countries and “landmark development” of the creation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). His government would carry on working for further cooperation within this Forum, he said.

This publicly declared commitment to EMGF could not have gone down well in Ankara, which he supposedly wants to persuade to agree to the resumption of talks in Cyprus. It was the creation of this Forum in January 2019, the founding members of which were Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, and Israel, that triggered Turkey’s aggressive stance towards Greece and Cyprus, after a period of relative quiet. The Forum would be a vehicle for structured dialogue of Eastern Mediterranean countries for the development of a regional natural gas market. Ankara viewed this as an “anti-Turkish club,” aimed at excluding Turkey from the energy plans for the Eastern Mediterranean.

The response was immediate, President Tayyip Erdogan announcing the ‘Blue Homeland’ doctrine which defined Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction areas, which included half the Aegean and half the Eastern Mediterranean. The hostile rhetoric was also stepped up. Later in 2019, Turkey sent a ship to carry out an exploratory survey in sea south of Cyprus and two drill ships, one to drill south of the Karpas peninsula and the other 55 nautical miles west of Paphos. Tension has marked relations between Greece and Turkey since, with this easing only in the last month or so.

President Christodoulides was foreign minister when all this was unfolding and knew why Turkey was reacting in the way it was, yet he has chosen to underline his commitment to the EMGF while simultaneously campaigning for a resumption of the peace talks. He has sought the help of the EU which he wants to take an active role in this, but has it not occurred to him that he is sending mixed signals, and that Brussels could start to question his sincerity about a Cyprus settlement? Someone so keen on the resumption of talks would not be antagonising the country that has a vital role in the Cyprus peace process.

The biggest irony is that the EMGF, which former president Nicos Anastasiades and Christodoulides, as foreign minister, praised to high heaven and used as proof of the Republic’s growing importance in the region, has had no practical import for Cyprus. Energy deals were made by the other members and Cyprus has always been excluded from these. Although Cyprus signed an agreement with Egypt in September 2018 to send its natural gas from the Aphrodite block to the Idku LNG terminal, four-and-a-half years later nothing has been done. Israel however, has been sending natural gas to Egypt via pipeline from the adjacent Leviathan block since January 2020. Later in the same year, El-Sisi proposed to Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, that East Med pipeline should take natural gas from the Leviathan gas field to Egypt and then to Greece via Crete, circumventing Cyprus. Israel, Cyprus’ other EMGF partner had also agreed to the plan that excluded Cyprus.

It was clear that neither Israel nor Egypt wanted to antagonise Turkey by including Cyprus in their energy plans, something that Nicosia refuses to see. Christodoulides, like his predecessor, also refuses to see that the only way to persuade Turkey to engage in a new peace process that would lead to a settlement, would be to use energy as the incentive. When this was proposed by the Akel leader at the national council meeting ten days ago, Anastasiades was quick to express his objection as did the leaders of the parties in the government alliance. Diko’s line is that Cyprus should never do a deal on energy with Turkey, but then again, this a is party that is strongly opposed to a settlement.

There will be no resumption of talks if energy is not put on the agenda. The president can carry on bragging about Cyprus’ role in EMGF, from which we have gained nothing, of practical value – in fact we have been excluded from our partners’ energy deals – while ensuring the new peace process will never materialize. Is this what the president wants? We hope not. By mid-May when the Turkish presidential elections are held, the government will have modified its plans and be ready to put energy on the talks agenda, if a settlement is a presidential priority.

There is no other way to ensure the active involvement of the EU and US, which sees energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean as a key part of the West’s strategic plans for the region, in constructive Cyprus peace process.