The East Med gas has been defined as a positive game-changer for almost last two decades. Those resources are presumed to be newly introduced elements or factors that would change the existing energy equation, distribution, or situation through cooperation in the Mediterranean and even in the Middle East and Europe. Despite the fact that the amount of gas represents less than 1.5 percent of the global proven reserves, it is relatively large for the region. Therefore, the development and the commercialization of the natural gas reserves located in the Levant Basin have been influencing not only the regional energy chessboard but also relations among regional countries, contributing to establishing a long-term condition of security and stability. However, the expected “energy bonanza” in the Eastern Mediterranean has not been materialized yet and the question of “Is energy a tool for more cooperation or not?” is no longer relevant.
There are many series of serious challenges such as commercial challenges, competitive disadvantages, domestic policy and regulatory issues. Beyond those challenges, especially the security and stability related geopolitical challenges, such as unsettled maritime borders or demarcation lines, Cyprus issue, Syria issue, naval and military buildup, anti-access/area denial bubbles and of course Libya caused a scramble between countries in the region for access to recently discovered gas fields.
For Turkey, East Med has never been only related to energy or gas; the primary issue is delineating maritime zones as sources of conflict in the region. Turkey’s sovereign rights in its continental shelf as well as protection of Turkish Cypriots’ equal rights are at stake. This perspective brings us to the concept of Blue Homeland or Mavi Vatan defined by Greece as Turkey’s ambitious plan for geopolitical supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, the current regional geopolitical developments, namely the emergence of an anti-Turkey club in the region, i.e. the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) established in Cairo in January 2019, forced Turkish decision makers to add assertive and aggressive gunboat diplomacy to its agenda.
The Turkish government (with a strong public perception) has long suffered from a chronic siege mentality, believing itself to be surrounded by hostile forces that threaten its core interests.
The current dramatic political transformation in Turkey’s imminent neighborhood was also a catalyst. Turkish elites perceived rising security challenges as a threat to Turkey’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Existing problems became more acute as new variables entered the equation like the discovery of new hydrocarbon reserves or the civil war in Syria. The formation of the EMGF appears as a concrete sign to justify such concerns. Increased cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt as well as key energy companies from Italy and France has grown to encompass Italy itself, Jordan, and Palestine with the creation of the EMGF. Turkey is noticeably absent.
Turkey’s absence is a serious concern for the region because of Turkey’s overlapping maritime claims, vast domestic market, and potential as a transit route for Eastern Mediterranean gas exports. This forum has received the backing of the United States and the European Union (EU) whose relationship with Turkey is also strained due to divergences on a growing number of issues. As a result, Turkish foreign policy, which attempted to rely more on soft power elements in the 2000s, radically shifted to a more aggressive position including sending troops to Syria and Libya, flexing muscle in high seas of the Mediterranean, and turning its face toward Eurasia.
This fault line is starkest in Libya where Ankara and the internationally recognized Libyan government struck a partnership agreement on a maritime boundary which created an exclusive economic zone that cut across Greek and Cypriot interests in November 2019. The move sought to bring the East Med issues to the very heart of the Mediterranean. Turkey has also recently applied for licenses to start drilling off the coast of Libya. As a result, with the current Libyan and Syrian conflicts closer together, East Med energy matters are linked to much broader geopolitical issues. The Turkish military has already finished its deployment in the eastern and western borders of designated areas within the Mediterranean and this has provided Turkey with the feeling of a greater opportunity to cement its position in the Mediterranean.
The Turkish decision makers view Greece as acting unilaterally by trying to internationalize the issue. Greek policy is based on setting a stage on the EU level, not NATO. Turkey is a NATO member country and has leverage in NATO’s safety and security mechanisms, despite some suspicions of NATO and Western security cooperation mechanisms. Greeks are expecting, with the absence of Turkey in internal decision-making processes, the EU to take a tougher stance against Turkey in line with Greek expectations. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias propagates that the “the escalation of Turkish aggression” is directed at the EU. Macron’s France is the main supporter of this approach in the EU and this position is harshly criticized by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a form of a non-constructive attitude. In Turkey’s point of view, this attitude makes France a party and a form of non-actor in reaching a constructive solution. These efforts and rhetoric used against Turkey are too transient to cause any actual change in Turkey’s current stance. The EU has already lost its leverage over Turkey long ago. Nevertheless, with Germany taking over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, this is considered a positive factor contributing to the EU’s constructive role in the resolution. The last call from Germany for direct talks between Greece and Turkey to de-escalate tension and resolve disputes over maritime rights in the Eastern Mediterranean is in line with the Turkish approach. The current and basic Turkish strategy is based on pushing Greece to the negotiation table and avoiding any clash. If the clash is unavoidable, it is very important to be on the right side legally and politically. Thus, if Greece is willing to negotiate with Turkey, it is time. The parties need to get together; they should restart joint meetings with navy commanders or defense ministers to strengthen confidence building measures to move forward and make energy resources a positive game-changer.