Natural Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Regional Destabilizer and the Quest for a Security Provider
The relatively newly-found natural gas reserves in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), coupled with the much more significant findings in Israel and Egypt generated over-excitement and disproportionate optimism regarding the economic future of the island, the prospects for a settlement to the Cyprus problem, and even regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Alas, the findings created more challenges than opportunities. This piece deals with the developing regional instability due to the ongoing Turkish aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean and the European Union’s (EU) inability to act as a security provider.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, neither the initial findings, nor the more recent (potential) findings in Block 6 of the Cypriot EEZ, actually contributed towards either the normalization of regional bilateral relations or the settlement of one of the most protracted conflicts in the world. On the contrary, the hydrocarbons in the Cypriot EEZ have become yet another excuse to highlight the complexities that dominate the Eastern Mediterranean regional inter-state relations, primarily among Turkey, the Republic of Cyprus (RoC), Israel, Egypt and to a lesser extend Greece. The regional complexities are defined by the deeply securitized status between Turkey and the RoC, the ‘cold’ relations between Egypt and Turkey, as well as the politically cold, but economically stable, relations between the former and Israel. The numerous trilateral agreements among Egypt, the RoC, Israel, and Greece, only exacerbated the challenges as Turkey was left out from the developments of a region in which it believes to have the primary role as an aspiring regional hegemon.
There is also a noteworthy exaggeration from almost all parties regarding the importance of the Cypriot findings for the periphery and Europe, which revolves primarily around two axes: (a) the degree of the natural gas supply diversification for Europe and (b) the potential positive impact on regional political relations. Leaving aside the current small confirmed quantities which cannot in any, for the time being at least, act as a natural gas alternative for the EU, the focus should be whether these or future findings, could actually change the regional negative political relations.
Could the hydrocarbons lead to regional peace and stability?
The existing evidence does not support the argument of “peace pipelines”. There is no concrete proof that energy relations lead to the alleviation of conflict; on the contrary, stable and cooperative political behavior is usually a prerequisite before the development of any energy-related investments. If anything, energy as a referent object of security has a multiplier effect on the states’ political securitization relations, meaning that in cases where states have deeply securitized political relations, energy is more likely to enhance the security concerns and enhance the securitized environment, and the reverse; desecuritized political relations ‘allow’ for energy collaborations, and the latter will most likely strengthen the former. The impact of energy on de/securitization relations lies on the fact that hydrocarbons and oil are very rarely treated solely as economic commodities. More often than not, they are also used as political tools to enhance states’ foreign policy influence and empower their political position vis-à- vis adversaries.
The Eastern Mediterranean and specifically Cyprus and Turkey that are at the heart of the developments act as witness to the aforementioned arguments. It is easily observable that in cases where political relationships are desecuritized – e.g. Cyprus with Israel and Egypt – there is room for collaboration and the discovery of hydrocarbons enhanced their bilateral relations on a political, economic and even military level (see for instance the numerous defense-related agreements between the RoC and Israel). The reverse is true for the RoC- Turkey relations, which are increasingly becoming more securitized because of the hydrocarbons, enhancing dramatically the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish warships have already prevented the Italian ENI from reaching its drilling target in Plot 3. Erdogan also warned that Turkey will prevent any future exploration efforts, while it promised to send its own drill ship in the contested RoC EEZ. There is little doubt that both ‘promises’ will significantly heighten the tensions between Turkey and all other actors (including the EU), reduce even further the prospects for settlement of the Cyprus conflict, and pose more challenges for the security providers of the region.
Can the EU become a regional security provider?
There is a relatively high risk of a Turkish confrontation with international drill ships, much like there is a risk of confrontation (or a mistake) in the Aegean Sea between Greek and Turkish forces, making the prospects for a full blown Eastern Mediterranean crisis a real possibility. The regional stability is anything but guaranteed, and the EU has to decide whether or not it wants and can take the responsibility of the security provider in the
southeastern part of its borders. Any attempt to act as a security provider will have to overcome Turkey’s own aspirations for the specific role. Indeed, Turkey’s hegemonic aspirations and more importantly the way it pursues them pose quite a big challenge. As an aspiring hegemon, Turkey believes that it cannot stand idle to the regional developments. In 2008 the then Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu emphasized the position that ‘Turkey is not a state that follows the fact but guides them’. Similarly, he noted that Turkey ‘cannot define itself in a defensive manner’, further arguing that Turkey’s new regional active role is to ‘provide security and stability not only for itself, but also for its neighboring regions’.
To act as a security provider the EU must overcome one major challenge – in addition to the absence of real security mechanisms – namely the fact that it forgot how to think geopolitically. Its overreliance on NATO for decades and the sole focus on soft power since the end of the Cold War contributed to this problem, which means that it now has to re-learn how to develop a geopolitical culture. The events in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as the developments in the Middle East, have demonstrated that the EU is essentially a toothless tiger when it comes to issues of hard security. The developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, coupled with the relative US withdrawal from the wider region of the Middle East, pose yet another challenge, but also an opportunity for the EU to demonstrate that it can have a much bigger role to play in its region and beyond.
The Opportunity: It is of utmost importance for the EU to maintain the stability in the sub-Regional Security Complex (RSC) of the Eastern Mediterranean, and this is a great opportunity to project some form of power, and more importantly, its willingness to act. Clearly it is irrational to expect that the EU will become a military power overnight, but some form of harder soft power is necessary in cases where different actors play by different rules, some of which include the presence of warships in an EU member state’s EEZ. If successful, it can use its actions as a stepping stone to extend its influence and global reach beyond the EU borders. It will also enhance its credibility as a security provider within the EU and more importantly in the periphery, while it will further justify the need for more mainstream security initiatives along the lines of PESCO.
The Challenge: The aforementioned opportunity is also a major risk if not utilized. Specifically, if the EU fails to act as a security provider, it will send a very clear message, namely that the Union cannot even protect a Member State’s interests from a candidate state! If the EU is incapable of protecting its own backyard, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to build a reputation and the associated credibility that would allow the Union to act as a security and peace provider in the eastern and southern periphery; a notion that is adopted by essentially everyone, including many EU officials. EU tolerance towards Turkey’s aggressive behavior only weakens the EU position and vision for more global influence, as outlined in the most recent Global Strategy.
We should make no mistake; the Eastern Mediterranean is in need for a security provider. There is a huge power gap in the specific sub-RSC, and in the absence of a strong EU and US presence, the region is “up for grabs” with Turkey being the prime candidate to win the competition. The problem is that Turkey does not behave in a way that facilitates regional stability; on the contrary through, literally, gunboat diplomacy it enhances both the regional security dilemmas as well as the need for a regional security provider. In the absence of one, the hydrocarbon findings are likely to politically split the region in two antagonistic parts with zero-sum interests. Political – and potentially military – relationships are likely to become further securitized, leading to a region, partly within the EU outer borders, of constant uneasiness and potential instability. Security gaps rarely remain vacant for long; if the EU is unwilling to fill this gap, then some other actor will, be it a regional one, such as Turkey, or an external one such as Russia or the US, or perhaps a combination. Perhaps this is also an opportunity for specific EU states to further detach their geopolitical role and goals from the EU’s. Countries like France could take on this opportunity, which would most likely be welcomed by countries like Cyprus, not least because the Turkish alternative is unacceptable, but this is not necessarily a positive development of the long-term EU strategic and geopolitical goals.
Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Department of Politics and Governance
Director of the Diplomatic Academy
University of Nicosia