For the past few years, the term EastMed has appeared frequently in international news, particularly those concerning the oil and gas industry. Its official name is “Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline,” an ambitious pipeline project launched in 2020 following the agreement signed in Athens by Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. According to the original plans, the pipeline should transport natural gas from the Israeli gas field Leviathan through the Cypriot one, Aphrodite, to Greece. From there, the gas should be transported to neighboring Italy and other European countries.
Undoubtedly, the perfect alternative to decreasing reliance on Russian gas. Not coincidentally, the project has enjoyed full US support since its inception. Accordingly, before the 2020 agreement that officially launched the project, another key trilateral meeting was held in March 2019 in Tel Aviv. There, the Prime Ministers of Israel and Greece and the President of Cyprus committed to an interstate agreement under the aegis of the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Furthermore, the week before the trilateral meeting, the State Department released a positive statement concerning the EastMed, as the ambitious pipeline pledged to exploit further the eastern Mediterranean gas resources, especially after the discoveries of the Tamar and Leviathan fields in Israel, in 2009 and 2010 respectively. The State Department said also that the project is necessary “for the benefit of the people of Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, and Israel.”
And it was precisely this declaration, with its strong political connotations, that decreed the East Med’s demise from the start.
As a first consideration, the main goal of the EastMed pipeline should be considered, namely that of creating an energy hub in the Mediterranean that would improve resource and trade development as well as relations among its regional players. This scope was very soon extended to other key players. In 2020, the EastMed Forum was soon turned into a regional organization based in Cairo, adding to the trilateral partnership with other players like Egypt, Jordan, Italy, and the Palestinian Authority. This was in line with Netanyahu’s program of exploiting Israel’s gas reserves to make the country one of the key regional players in gas exports.
What About Turkey?
Until now, everything looked like an ideal situation to reach the sought-after stability in a region traditionally considered a tinderbox. But at this point, a legitimate question arises: where is Turkey, one of the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean in terms of gas? The logic would dictate allowing the EastMed to pass through Turkey to avoid both economic and environmental issues. In this regard, the State Department’s declaration, mentioned earlier, turns out to be ambiguous, because Turkey would be the only country that would not benefit from the project, as it is totally excluded from it.
And Turkey’s absence certainly looks incomprehensible, given Ankara’s central position between Central Asia and Europe, particularly gas-wise. Nevertheless, Turkey poses political and geopolitical challenges to the EastMed countries. Although some analysts believe that major hindrances are related to environmental, geological, and economic issues (commercial feasibility, deep trenches, geological fault lines, and high realization costs), the real problems are certain persistent problems with Turkey.
The longstanding territorial waters dispute between Greece and Turkey is the most evident one. In a situation where Ankara does not recognize the territorial water status quo of both Greece and Cyprus, the discovery of new gas reserves in an area considered under Cyprus’ jurisdiction raises several objections from Turkey in relation to the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Examples include the management of marine blocks 5 and 12. As the two blocks are considered part of Cyprus’ EEZ, Nicosia accorded an exploration and drilling license to the consortium of Qatar Energy-ExxonMobil (QE-EM) for block number 5 located on the southwest side of the island. Block 12, instead, of the so-called Aphrodite well, was opened to drilling and exploration by the Noble Energy-Delek-Shell consortium. These actions were supported by a law passed in 2004 by the Greek Cypriot community, a law that defines and regulates Cyprus’s EEZ. According to the law, there are thirteen blocks that the Republic of Cyprus can dispose of at its discretion.
This caused Ankara’s harsh reaction since, as is well known, since 1974 the island of Cyprus has been de facto divided into the Greek and Turkish sides, with the latter not being recognized by the international community. Notwithstanding this, Turkey claims justice, especially concerning the exploitation of the island’s gas resources, which is directly related to the thorny issue of territorial waters.
This status quo explains why a pipeline like the EastMed, passing through contested Cypriot territorial waters and excluding Turkey, is not a good political and geopolitical option. Moreover, the stalemate between Greece and Turkey persists, and skirmishes in the eastern Mediterranean are an everyday reality. In this complex situation, the role played by the US should not be ignored, given that both countries are NATO members, and rifts should be avoided.
In May 2022, Greece and Turkey were close to a serious diplomatic and military incident following the visit of the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to the US. During the visit, Mitsotakis showed the map of the “Blue Homeland,” namely the territories claimed by Turkey in the eastern Mediterraneanbto President Joe Biden first, and to Nancy Pelosi and other US senators later. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, visited the United States the same month and expressed open concern about the US losing its balance in the Greek-Turkish dispute, clearly favoring the former. The foreign minister declared that the talks concerned issues like Ukraine, the East Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. A wise move that emphasizes the country’s geopolitical importance.
Turkey Should Not Be Ignored
Undoubtedly, these are all topics of great concern to the US, which cannot help but acknowledge the central role played by Turkey both politically and geopolitically. Ankara’s central position on issues like the mediation in Russia’s war in Ukraine, the economic relations with Central Asia and Russia, and the veto concerning the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO related to the extradition of members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are all issues pointing at one conclusion: Turkey should not be ignored.
Besides, Turkey seems not to be concerned about its neighbors’ reactions. The 2019 deal with Libya is a telling proof of this. The agreement, in fact, defined the EEZ between the two countries for the exploitation of potentially gas-rich areas. Needless to say, this provoked harsh reactions from the EU, particularly from Greece and Cyprus, which felt threatened in their respective EEZs. But Ankara was not put off by this. In October 2022, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu signed a defense deal with the Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah.
The United States’ Withdrawal from the EastMed
The US almost certainly feels the burden of its mediating role and the need to increase its beneficial influence in the region. Recently, the superpower supported a historical deal between Israel and Lebanon for the settlement of their maritime disputes, which led to the clear definition of their respective EEZ. This sets a precedent that certainly reminds Washington of its duty to intervene in the Greek-Turkish dispute as well, where a lot is at stake. But this is a difficult endeavor because neither party should be disappointed. Before any substantial action is undertaken, therefore, withdrawal from the EastMed seemed, at least for now, to be the most viable solution.
The official explanation was that the overall project was against the environmental principles and climate goals preached by Joe Biden. In this regard, it is interesting to quote Amos Hochstein, Department Senior Advisor for Energy Security: “Why would we build a fossil fuel pipeline between the EastMed and Europe when our entire policy is to support new technology… and new investments in going green and in going clean?” and “By the time this pipeline is built, we will have spent billions of taxpayer money on something that is obsolete—not only obsolete but against our collective interest between the US and Europe.” But, while he condemns the project as a politically driven one, he also declares that the most important criterion is the commercial one. This is certainly a statement that does not really fit into the green paradigm previously declared.
There is no doubt that the EastMed would pass through a complex region, geopolitically speaking, and the US predicament vis-à-vis Greek-Turkish relations would sooner or later come out. It cannot be ignored, however, that withdrawing from the project, coupled with the ongoing war in Ukraine and the gas provision issue that ensued, had a benefit to Washington’s economy.
Since 2016, the year when the US started its LNG exporting activities, the country has become one of the three major exporters after Australia and Qatar. Now it aims to become the world’s largest exporter, with three new export facilities already on the way.
Data and facts speak clearly. It is reported that the first half of 2022 showed a sharp increment in US LNG exports, aiming to fill the vacuum left by Russia. More precisely, the US aims to increase LNG exports from 15 to 50 billion cubic meters by 2030 for energy-hungry Europe. Before Moscow decided to close the taps, the US exported roughly 40 billion cubic meters of LNG. The situation is bound to change. The major company involved, Cheniere, announced that it would increase its exports to the old continent by 10 million metric tons per year.
This trend was further confirmed by the joint task force agreed upon on March 25 by US President Joe Biden and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The agreement aimed to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels as well as strengthen the EU’s overall energy policies. More specifically, the two declared goals were to diversify LNG supplies and reduce the overall demand for natural gas. This would be harmonized with the globally declared environmental criteria that push towards new and cleaner forms of energy production.
In this light, the United States’ decision to focus on electricity interconnectors could be interpreted as a cheaper and simpler substitute for the EastMed. These interconnectors are all in the same area and serve the same countries. Among them is the EuroAfrica which connects Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt, and the EuroAsia between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel. The official explanation is based, once again, on the need to increase the transition to clean energy.
The Path Forward
Notwithstanding this, the EastMed still shows signs of life. In July this year, the joint venture IGI-Poseidon, made up of the Italian Edison and the Greek Depa, launched the first tenders for the construction of a pipeline that would transport, every year, 10 billion cubic meters of gas from Israel and Cyprus to the southern Italian region of Apulia. From there, the gas would be shipped to other European countries through Crete and mainland Greece.
The EastMed was resuscitated after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine when Russia began to cut gas supplies. Nevertheless, a careful observer cannot help but see that the war in Ukraine is also favoring those countries that exercise the monopoly in the natural gas export field, among them the US. No one can therefore exclude that the US withdrawal from the EastMed could point in two directions: the acknowledgement that Turkey is too much of a strategic partner on all levels to be neglected, and the unrepeatable economic opportunity to make deeper inroads into the energy-hungry European market.
It remains to be seen to what extent Washington’s withdrawal will decree the definitive death of what started not only as one of the most ambitious gas infrastructure projects but also as an opportunity to bring stability to a volatile region.