The meeting between Greece’s newly elected Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 25 September at a time of increasingly provocative actions within Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) may be helpful in de-escalating tensions over time.

“It seems a good start, especially if exploratory talks revive,” Constantinos Filis, director of research at Institute of International Relations, told New Europe on 26 September, adding that Erdogan has good reasons to defuse tensions with Greece. He explained that Athens is the only interlocutor of Ankara in the Eastern Mediterranean; it is one of the few EU member states that supports Turkey’s accession to the EU or at least a functional relationship; it deems it necessary to assist Turkey in dealing with refugee flows and be assisted with more EU money. Besides, Filis added, the too many open fronts of Erdogan both inside and outside Turkey make him unwilling to open a new one.

Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company CEO Charles Ellinas said it appears that the Mitsotakis-Erdogan meeting took place in a constructive atmosphere. “They have set up mechanisms to follow this up, which give hope of future normalization,” he told New Europe on 26 September, adding that improved communication channels, can only be helpful in de-escalating regional tension over time.

However, he noted that a lot also depends on the outcome of the meetings the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is holding with all parties to the Cyprus problem in New York. “While these meetings are taking place I expect all sides will refrain from activities in the East Med that cause tension. A lot rests on these meetings,” he said.

Turkish drilling off Cyprus could make waves

“If Guterres concludes that there is a basis to restart negotiations then there would be hope and tension could be defused,” Ellinas said, adding that if negotiations do not restart, then Ankara will escalate its activities in the East Med with more drilling in Cyprus EEZ. And as and when the new drilling round announced by Cyprus to take place during 2020-2021 starts, Turkey’s intervention is likely to become more intrusive and more aggressive, Ellinas argued.

On 18 September, France’s Total and Italy’s ENI joined forces to explore and exploit another oil and gas block up for grabs offshore from Cyprus. “This, and Total’s farm-in to Blocks 2, 3, 8 and 9, is good news in that it strengthens exploration in Cyprus EEZ,” Ellinas said, reminding that ENI and Total are two of the top majors in the world with vast experience in deep-water exploration and production. Joining forces can only be helpful and can bring this experience to bear results, he said.

“Block 7 is southwest of the island and however strange it may sound it is one of those claimed by Turkey. So, as and when ENI and Total start exploration activities in this block, Turkey may not intervene to stop them – as it did in Block 3 last year – but it is likely that it may drill in the part of the block it claims,” Ellinas said, adding that would escalate tension dramatically. He opined that with the European Union, the United States and UN not willing to intervene – other than providing vocal support – restart of the negotiations to resolve the Cyprus problem is probably the only way left to de-escalate tension.

According to Filis, Turkey has paid almost $1 billion to acquire drill ships and other advanced technology related with energy for a specific purpose: to showcase its strength and willingness to explore hydrocarbons in disputed areas over and inside Cyprus’ EEZ and this to secure its position by being constantly present in regional developments.

Filis noted that Ankara wishes to avoid the reversal of the 1974 status in Cyprus by preventing Greek Cypriots from developing their energy reserves together with foreign companies, neighbouring countries, and the EU. The latter sees in the Eastern Mediterranean a supplementary alternative to Russian gas and the involvement of two member states – Greece and Cyprus – further consolidates its position.

For the time being, despite Ankara’s threats over Total’s engagement in Block 7, it does not seem likely that the former will make provocations in the southern part of Cyprus’ EEZ, Filis said. “Besides, if there is a restart of negotiations between the two communities, Turkey will abstain from actions that can be considered as undermining to the process, he said, adding “Unless, it is determined to do so for other geopolitical reasons.”

Exploitation of Cyprus and East Med gas

Regarding the development and export of Cyprus and East Med gas, Ellinas said the problem is low global gas prices. “The world is inexorably moving to renewable energy – which increasingly is becoming cheaper – putting fossil fuels under pressure,” Ellinas said, noting that this week’s UN Climate Action meetings in New York focused attention on the issues with major commitments made to achieve even more ambitious clean energy targets.

New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has made strong commitments to bring in a European Green Deal early next year, increase carbon emissions reduction by 2030 from 40% now to 50%, or even 55%, and put net-zero emissions by 2050 into law. “The writing is on the wall – adoption of clean energy is accelerating. The world is becoming awash with cheap energy and prices will stay low,” Ellinas said, noting that this is the environment in which East Med gas, which is deep water and expensive to develop, needs to compete to secure markets – a big challenge.

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