Turkey - a hero to some, but a bully to others

By bne IntelliNews October 13, 2011

Justin Vela in Istanbul -

The EU's 2011 progress report on Turkey highlighted concerns over a growing energy dispute with Greek Cyprus and comes at a low-point for Turkey-EU relations. Riding a wave of popularity as the Arab Spring struggles on, Turkey is increasingly throwing its weight around the region - a hero to some, but a bully to others.

"The accession negotiations with Turkey have regrettably not moved into any new areas for over a year," read the EU report published October 12. One of the key issues that would give its accession process new momentum is normalising relations with Cyprus. Yet here is an unfortunate example of Turkey playing the bully.

In September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described exploratory drilling for oil and gas being carried out by Cyprus as "madness." This was in response to Cyprus allowing Texas-based Noble Energy to explore energy reservoirs south of the island, in an area called the Levant Basin. A 2010 US Geological Survey estimates the area contains 1.7bn barrels of oil and 3.45bn cubic metres of natural gas, which would make it one the world's top-10 gasfields.

Noble is also involved in drilling further east in the Mediterranean, in waters belonging to Israel, Turkey's estranged ally. Greek Cyprus and Israel have already signed an agreement for cooperation on energy and agreed upon a maritime demarcation line.

Cyprus split in two in 1974 following an attempted coup d'etat by Greek Cypriot nationalists backed by the Greek military junta and the subsequent Turkish invasion of the northeast of the island. The Republic of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004; Turkey remains the only country to recognise the northeast of the island as an independent republic.

Following the announcement that Nobel would begin drilling, Turkey sent its own exploratory rig, the Piri Reis, to conduct seismic research off Cyprus, escorted by warships. Turkey also signed an agreement with Turkish Cyprus to demarcate sea borders between the two and to explore for energy. The potential for a clash appears high. Greek and Turkish media reported that the Piri Reis sailed into the island's southern waters for a time before returning north. However, part of the area where the Piri Reis is exploring overlaps with where Noble is drilling, reports Bloomberg.

Turkey sees the Greek Cypriot drilling as an attempt by hostile states to outmanoeuvre it in the Mediterranean. Along with seeing itself as the primary force in the Mediterranean, Turkey wants to increase its importance as a transit route for energy to Europe. Should the energy reserves prove as bountiful as estimated, a pipeline is likely to be built directly to the EU via Cyprus and Greece, bypassing Turkey. "The EU would rather import from another EU member than a loose canon like Turkey or Russia," reckons Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based security analyst.

Noble's affiliate, Israel's Delek Group, has also proposed building a gas export plant on Greek Cyprus. Delek and its subsidiary Avner each have the option for 15% of the rights to the reserves, which are located in a field known as Block 12. The deal is waiting approval by the Greek Cypriot government, who has pressure stacked on them to come up with new energy supplies after an explosion damaged its main power plant.

Trying to halt or at least slow the drilling, Turkey argued that any revenues from the energy should be shared with northern Cyprus, a Turkish protectorate since the 1974 Greek military intervention. Drilling should not begin until reunification talks are complete, argues Turkey. Furthermore, with a report on talks between north and south Cyprus due at the UN later in October, the Greek Cypriot decision to begin drilling is unduly provocative, Turkey says.

Unfortunately for Turkey, Greek Cyprus won't back down. The US and EU vocally supported their decision to begin drilling. The country is completely within its rights in terms of international law: the drilling is taking place in an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) recognised as belonging to Greek Cyprus. Turkey did not sign the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea that stipulates EEZ's extend for 200 nautical miles from the edge of a country's territorial waters. States have the right to sole exploitation of natural resources within their EEZs.

Still, Turkey's policies remain practical in practice, if not in words. The threats of increasing its naval presence on the Mediterranean have more growl than bite. While the rise in tensions are real, and have the EU concerned, a military confrontation between Turkey and Greek Cyprus or Israel remains unlikely.

A greater problem looms in 2012, when Greek Cyprus is due to assume the EU's rotating presidency. Should this happen, Turkey has said it will cut relations with the EU. Some analysts liken the EU to a huge oil tanker that takes kilometres to turn around. Cyprus assuming the presidency is a done deal, they say. Others are confident EU-Turkey relations are too important to abandon.

The feisty rhetoric is full-speed ahead, but Turkey and the EU are ultimately inseparable.

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