On the 25th of November 2019, the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders will meet in Berlin under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The meeting is aimed at providing one more push to kickstart talks that can unite Cyprus’s feuding communities. Unfortunately, the talks will take place under the shadow of several disappointing developments relating to the hydrocarbon resources dispute around the island.
The discoveries of hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly around the island of Cyprus, have raised the question of whether it will be a game changer in terms of the disputes surrounding Cyprus. But the stance of the international community, particularly the European Union, is proving otherwise by delinking the issue of hydrocarbons and peace.
A similar opportunity was missed through the EU's mistake when they had not made the settlement of the Cyprus issue conditional to EU membership. The unconditional offer of EU membership, with or without a settlement, further encouraged the Greek Cypriot rejection of the 2004 Annan Plan.
The EU has not only economically and politically supported the Greek Cypriot Cyprus gas endeavour but have imposed sanctions on Turkey because of drilling activities. On the other hand, the US has been supporting the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum which includes Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
The US has also repeated its support for the Greek Cypriot administration’s right for full sovereignty over the island to carry on with the operations, and openly criticised Turkish drilling in the area labelling it as "unacceptable" under the rules that govern international waters. The irony here is of course that the US itself has not ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, and was one of its original architects.
The international community has been enabling both the Greek Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) delimitation and the potential of becoming a key energy hub without the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey, in turn affecting the strategic equilibrium in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The international community’s stance condoning the claim of the Greek Cypriot administration that it is its “sovereign right” to exploit the hydrocarbon resources around the island, takes away the possibility to create incentives and interdependence for cross border cooperation between the two communities.
In a wider geographical context beyond Cyprus, the use of hydrocarbons as a key pillar to forge closer ties and regional cooperation amongst the countries on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean (Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria) is being disregarded as well.
Since the 2000s, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus side has objected to all unilateral activities of the Greek Cypriot administration relating to maritime zones including; Greek Cypriot Administration concluding agreements with third countries for EEZ delimitation; authorising exploration and drilling operations with several energy companies (Italian ENI, South Korean Kogas, French Total, American Exxon Mobil, Qatar Petroleum, American Noble Energy, Israel Delek Group, and Royal Dutch Shell).
The standing of the Turkish Cypriots is based on a contention that is acknowledged publicly by the international community as well as the Greek Cypriot: Turkish Cypriots are the co-owners of both the island and the hydrocarbon resources.
In practice, this should mean that every decision spanning from the initial exploratory phases to holding discussions on how these resources will be monetised, shared and transferred to world markets should involve Turkish Cypriots.
The main demand of the Turkish Cypriots on the issue was either to suspend all actions pertaining to hydrocarbons until a negotiated settlement to the Cyprus conflict is reached, or to be involved as co-partners in the process.
Another contentious issue is that Turkish maritime borders and the so-called Greek Cypriot maritime borders. Five of the so-called parcels (1,4,5,6,7) declared by the Greek Cypriot Administration fall into what Turkey claims as part of their own EEZ. As the maritime delimitation in the Eastern Mediterranean concerns Turkey’s ipso facto and ab inito legal and sovereign rights, Turkey has the right to protect her own rights and interests in the areas overlapping with her own continental shelf.
Turkish Cypriots, in light of Greek Cypriot unilateralism, has been obliged to take steps to protect its own rights and interests regarding the hydrocarbon resources around the island. In this regard, on 21 September 2011, the Turkish Cypriot administration signed a continental shelf delimitation agreement with Turkey and on September 22, 2011 the TRNC Council of Ministers adopted a decision identifying offshore concession blocks as well as licensing Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) to carry out exploration activities for oil and natural gas on behalf of the Turkish Cypriot side.
Regardless, Turkish Cypriots continued to table proposals to cooperate with the Greek Cypriot side which they consistently rejected, instead taking their proposals and cooperation elsewhere.
Contracts for the first hydrocarbon exploitation license were signed last week. In May 2019, the Turkish Petroleum Corporation started drilling activities in the west of the island prompting strong calls from the US and the EU to cease activity.
The UN which has been struggling to mediate between Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, acknowledges the importance and the necessity for cooperation (the most recent UN report can be found here).
But given the geopolitical challenges, national interests and the economic considerations of actors both in the region and outside, there are challenges to the gas-for-peace option where it could add momentum to the reunification process and regional security.
The economic sanctions on individuals and entities adopted by the EU Council this week against Turkey’s drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean comes at a critical juncture, just before the Cyprus talks in Berlin.
The EU's unjust stance once again reassures Greek Cypriots that the existing status quo on the island does not constitute an unbearable situation and they can continue to hold Turkish Cypriots hostage to an all-embracing isolation in all fields of life.
The bottom line is that the UN cannot mediate a peace both on the island and in the region without a more productive role from the international community.
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