Squaring the Triangle: Why Turkey and the EastMed Project Need Each Other


On March 20, the leaders of Greece, Israel, and Cyprus, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, met in Jerusalem to discuss a range of multilateral issues. Among these was a formal declaration of support for the EastMed pipeline, a project to transport natural gas from underwater sources in the Eastern Mediterranean to interconnectors in Europe. Although the pipeline proposal has been bandied about since 2012, the summit’s declaration of support, following on the heels of a similar tripartite meeting in December, appears to solidify the so-called “Energy Triangle” relationship between the three Eastern Mediterranean nations.

The triangle seeks to exploit an entirely new energy situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. The region’s energy landscape was revolutionized overnight in 2009, when prospectors discovered vast reserves of natural gas in the Tamar field off the coast of Israel, followed in subsequent years by the discovery of the Leviathan (Israel), Aphrodite (Cyprus), and Calypso (Cyprus) gas fields. All told, these huge deposits contain an estimated 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply Israel’s current level of gas consumption for a century. Further explorations are currently underway, meaning it is anyone’s guess what the final size of these reserves will be. Whatever their size, once these fields are fully exploited, they will transform the economies of Cyprus and Israel, both of which have traditionally relied heavily on energy imports to meet domestic demand.

Besides satisfying domestic demand, Israel and Cyprus need to secure adequate export revenues to make the gas development projects financially viable. Luckily for them, the size of the fields vastly exceeds their domestic needs. The natural customer for these exports is Europe. The continent’s appetite for energy is growing steadily, with demand for natural gas, in particular, expected to climb in the coming decade. In addition, the European Commission’s Energy Roadmap 2050 identified natural gas as a key medium-term substitute for coal as the continent slowly transitions towards alternative energy sources. Finally, legislators in the European Union are also increasingly concerned about Russia’s large share in Europe’s gas market and have looked to the natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean as a source of import diversification. The European Commission has labeled the EastMed pipeline a “Project of Common Interest,” and has contributed €34.5 million (USD $38.9 million) to complete technical studies for the project.

EastMed, if and when completed, will transport up to 352 billion cubic feet of natural gas annually along a 1,250-mile pipeline through overland and underwater pipelines across Cyprus and Greece to reach interconnector terminals in Italy. The European Commission has deemed the project technically and commercially viable, opening the way for both Cyprus and Israel to benefit from the export sales of their gas resources, and for Greece to collect substantial transport fees. To reap the economic benefits of the project, Cyprus, Israel, and Greece must all work collaboratively. But, as the March 20 summit has shown, the three countries are eager to strengthen their ties and make the pipeline a reality.

Despite this good will, there remain numerous obstacles, both geopolitical and commercial, to the realization of EastMed. In particular, the ongoing dispute between Cyprus and Turkey is a major confounding variable, forcing the pipeline to take a much longer and costlier route to avoid Turkey’s maritime boundaries. Besides the extra cost and inconvenience, there are mounting concerns that Turkish vessels could continue to interfere with maritime drilling activities, a situation that could endanger the pipeline. Overcoming these obstacles will not only require unified action between Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, but a concerted effort to find common ground with Turkey to turn the “Energy Triangle” into an “Energy Square.”

The “Cyprus Question”

The primary reason for Turkey’s exclusion is the “Cyprus question,” an unresolved conflict which has divided that Mediterranean island for 45 years. This issue stands at the heart of the geopolitics of energy in the Eastern Mediterranean. The future of Cyprus could very well be the deciding factor as to whether countries are able to work together to share in the wealth of these natural gas deposits, or if competition and regional rivalries threaten the viability of projects like EastMed.

The latest round of U.N.-sponsored talks over Cyprus began with cautious optimism but ultimately failed in July 2017. Turkey, Greece, and the Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot communities remain deeply divided. Still, hope springs eternal. Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades announced to the media in November 2018 that “I anticipate that 2019 will be a pivotal year for the future of our country, a year of productive dialogue which will usher in peace, stability and progress for all our people.” Despite such encouraging statements, it appears that reunification of Cyprus remains a distant prospect. The energy revolution, rather than creating an incentive for finding a solution, has only made the Cyprus question more complex as the issue of energy development becoming increasingly has become linked to the reunification process.



Turkey & EastMed

The Greek Cypriot side is in de facto control of the offshore Aphrodite and Calypso natural gas deposits. They have used these resources as a bargaining chip, insisting that Turkish-Cypriots will only be able to share in the profits after reunification occurs. The Turkish position, meanwhile, is that energy development should not occur until an agreement between the two sides is reached. Turkey has gone so far as to intervene in exploration activities by European energy companies in Cypriot waters. In February 2018, Turkish naval vessels blocked the transfer of a drilling platform owned by the Italian gas company ENI in a contested region off the southern coast of Cyprus. Ultimately, Cyprus’ need to build the export infrastructure necessary to fully develop its energy resources will necessitate some form of compromise and acceptance by Ankara.

Putting political rivalries aside for a moment, Turkey’s geographic position and existing gas infrastructure would make it an ideal partner in the region’s energy development projects. A direct connection from the national gas fields around Cyprus to existing pipelines and gas terminals in Turkey would create a far cheaper and more efficient path to European markets. This gas could also serve to satisfy Turkey’s own growing demand for energy, as well as pass through the country’s own pipeline infrastructure for re-export to Europe.

This option is not viable, however, given the current geopolitics of the region. The EastMed project embodies the growing strategic alliance between Cyprus, Israel, Greece, (as well as Egypt) — all of whom have poor relations with Turkey. The disputed status of Cyprus means there is little trust between parties to commit to long-term energy agreements. Turkish-Israeli relations have ebbed and flowed, but have generally been bad since Israeli forces killed 10 activists aboard a Turkish ship trying to run the Gaza blockade in 2010. Turkey and Greece, despite their joint membership in NATO, have maintained a strong rivalry, spurred on by the “Cyprus question,” lingering territorial disputes, and, more recently, Greece’s decision to shelter a number Turkish defectors alleged to have been involved in the failed 2016 Turkish coup attempt.

Because of these geopolitical tensions, the EastMed project has essentially been designed to exclude and work around Turkey, exemplified by the plan for the pipeline to take a long detour to avoid Turkish waters. As it currently stands, Turkey has little ability to participate in this lucrative new energy market and every incentive to act as a spoiler.

Turkey’s Fork in the Road

Currently, the EastMed project is still in its infancy; as a result, there is still time to re-orient the pipeline to reflect changes in the region’s geopolitics. However, considering the time and cost of laying the physical infrastructure, it will not easily adapt to future diplomatic developments once the pipeline is laid. If Turkey remains excluded from regional cooperation efforts like EastMed, the country is likely to remain uncooperative on a range of issues, from the reunification of Cyprus to its migration agreement with the European Union. This is particularly alarming given Turkey’s recent political developments and its ever-stronger relations with Russia, Iran, and China. Despite its increasingly independent foreign policy objectives, Turkey remains an important ally and partner to the West. The European Union would benefit from cooperating with Turkey on energy security as a stepping-stone to cooperation on these other issues.

The closer relations among Greece, Cyprus, and Israel are in no small part thanks to their cooperation on energy development. Considering the prospects for domestic energy consumption and export, the creation of the “Energy Triangle” could be an economic boon for all three countries. Recent agreements on developing the EastMed pipeline to Europe exemplifies how converging interests on energy has created one of the strongest cooperative blocs in a region rife with rivalry.

Currently, Turkey remains a major potential spoiler to this arrangement. Disputes over Cyprus and its maritime border could threaten the future of the EastMed project. Worse, Turkish obstinacy is a missed opportunity. By remaining outside the cooperative framework of the “Energy Triangle,” Turkey will not only fail to secure a cheap source for natural gas imports but will also miss out on the gains of acting as a transit route for re-export to Europe. The March 20 summit is just the latest in a series of meetings that demonstrated concerted political support for continued progress on the EastMed pipeline. It is clearly in Turkey’s economic interests to recognize the mutual benefits of the project and become a willing partner.

Nevertheless, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel also carry some of the blame for isolating Turkey. As it currently stands, the “Energy Triangle” arrangement between the three countries is probably workable, but it is far from ideal. Just like Turkey, it is also in each of their interests to create an atmosphere of cooperation to reduce the project’s cost and mitigate risks of regional confrontation. These economic arguments, however, will require substantial political will on all sides to overcome decades of mistrust.

As it stands, the economic argument is unlikely to convince Ankara to reverse course so dramatically. Instead, its geopolitical interests need to be addressed. Currently, Turkey’s energy needs are growing rapidly. With few non-renewable resources of their own, the country has leaned heavily on Russia and Iran, who together account for 70 percent of Turkey’s natural gas imports. It is not clear if this energy dependency has contributed to Turkey’s recent “revisionist” foreign policy moves. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to believe that diversifying Turkey’s energy imports could loosen Russia and Iran’s leverage over Ankara.

Turkish dependence on Russia and Iran for gas is an important angle which Greece, Cyprus, and Israel should take in their negotiations over EastMed. That pipeline has the potential to be an important collaborative project for Turkey, which could provide economic gains and meet core national security requirements. Additionally, it is imperative that the United States continue to throw its support behind the EastMed pipeline, generally — as Pompeo’s presence at the March 20 summit shows — as well as for the inclusion of Turkey. By touting its benefits for both Turkish national security and Turkish economic development, the United States could help to entice Turkey to return to the Western fold. If all sides — Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Turkey, and the United States — can recognize the individual and collective gains of the project, the EastMed pipeline can serve as a first step towards building regional cooperation. In time, the addition of Turkey as one more side of the “Energy Triangle” could develop the trust needed to address a wide range of geopolitical issues that currently divide the Eastern Mediterranean.



Tim Robinson is the editor-in-chief at the Center for Development and Strategy. He has worked as a research fellow at the NATO Defence College in Rome, Italy and volunteered for the Halifax International Security Forum.

Geordie Jeakins is an environmental security analyst at the Center for Development and Strategy. He has also served in the Canadian federal government, analyzing innovation policy.


Image: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem photo by Matty Stern