Tensions between Cyprus and Turkey: the energy issue in watermarks

On November 14th , Cypriot President Demetris Christofias, sent out two letters, one to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon another to the European Commission in which he denounced one “serious incident” which took place in the Mediterranean Sea. Nicosia deplored three additional cases in late November.

In those letters Cyprus accuses Ankara of harassing its oil exploration ships sailing in the Cypriot exclusive economic zone. Whereas Ankara claims that the ships intercepted by its military fleet were in Turkish territorial waters and that this constitutes a violation of its territorial rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

For several years now, Cyprus has launched a series of exploratory missions in the waters near its south coast and in the meantime has been conducting negotiations to establish an exclusive economic zone/area with its neighbors. Despite repeated protests from Ankara, two agreements were signed regarding the delimitation of offshore oil exploration areas, one was signed with Egypt in February 2003, and the other with Lebanon in January 2007.

Recent discoveries made by Shell in the Egyptian territorial waters have further strengthened the determination of Nicosia: despite Turkey’s hindrances, the undertaken searches will not cease. While Ankara will object to any exploration as long as its own interests and the rights in the area will not be guaranteed.

Tension is rising on both sides of the Aegean Sea and this mini-crisis threatens to spread to all the other issues opposing Cyprus to Turkey.

On the one hand, these incidents have further complicated an already difficult negotiations aimed at reunifying the divided island since the Turkish invasion of 1974. The issue of oil and gas drilling in Mediterranean Sea is likely to derail the reconciliation process between both countries.

On the other hand, Cyprus seems determined to link the current negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the European Union to the energy issue. While Ankara expected to see three new chapters opened during the Czech presidency, only two will, the energy one staying away under pressure from Nicosia.

The energy issue looks more and more like the stumbling block for Turkey which could annihilate its European dream if no solution is found in the near future. Because time is of the essence each day that passes by makes the issue more complex and difficult to resolve.

Florence Debrouwer
Research Fellow F.R.S. – FNRS