With tension mounting over Turkish drilling for gas in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ,) Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci has proposed a joint committee with Greek-Cypriots to review how to proceed and reduce the risk of a conflict.
Akinci conveyed the idea to Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades through a United Nationsl official as they are no longer talking, two years after reunification talks collapsed at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana.
The negotiations fell apart after Akinci and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they would never remove a 35,000-strong army on the northern third of the island that’s been occupied since an unlawful 1974 Turkish invasion.
The legitimate government, which belongs to the European Union that Turkey has been trying to join since 2005 has licensed foreign companies to drill for oil and gas in the EEZ, parts of which Turkey disputes.
While Anastasiades said he was willing to share potentially lucrative revenues with Turkey-Cypriot officials, that wasn’t enough for Akinci and Erdogan, who want their side to take part in the licensing.
The proposal said that Turkish and Greek Cypriots “are equal partners on the island, have equal rights, so should share the income and cooperate in the area of hydrocarbon resources and benefit from these resources simultaneously,” the ministry said, the news agency Reuters reported.
If adopted, the proposal would “initiate a new period of cooperation between the two parties,” it added.
Erdogan sent two energy research vessels into Cypriot sovereign waters despite denunciations from the UN, which has backed away from sanctions, and with Turkey ignoring similar demands from the United States to back off.
Cyprus also hasn’t enforced an international arrest warrant it issued against the crew of the first Turkish vessel to begin drilling with Erdogan essentially daring the Cypriots to try to do that, with a Turkish warship in the vicinity.
Akcini’s statement said his idea was to turn the gas search off the island .into a platform for cooperation rather than one of "tension and conflict,” although no real details were given on how that could happen.
The committee would be made up of an equal number of members from both communities and would fall under U.N with the EU acting as an observer although both bodies have failed to make any progress with Erdogan and the UN has ignored Cypriot pleas.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry backed Akinci's proposal, which it said would create a "new era of cooperation between the two sides,” which have been at odds for almost 45 years and little hope seen to bring them together again..
Akinci's formal proposal comes as the EU was preparing soft sanctions against Turkey for dispatching a second vessel to drill for gas in Cypriot waters, possible measures Anastasiades decried as too weak and vague and essentially toothless.
The EU has condemned Turkey's actions as an "unacceptable escalation" that breaches Cyprus' sovereign rights and international law but Erdogan hasn’t reacted with bloc officials fearful he could unleash more refugees who went to his country from the Middle East on overwhelmed Greek islands.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned his country would step up its drilling activities off Cyprus if the EU moves ahead with sanctions, mocking bloc leaders.
Turkey contends that it's protecting its rights and those of Turkish-Cypriots to the area's hydrocarbon deposits. Cypriot officials, however, accuse Turkey of using the minority Turkish-Cypriots in order to pursue its goal of exerting control over the eastern Mediterranean region and with Anastasiades saying an energy invasion is underway.
Cyprus said it will take legal action against any oil and gas companies supporting Turkish vessels in any repeat attempt to drill for gas. Cyprus has already issued around 20 international arrest warrants against three international companies assisting one of the two Turkish vessels now drilling 42 miles (68 kilometers) off the island's west coast.
Akinci has repeatedly called for the creation of a committee he said would give his side a role in how energy revenues would be managed and divided, similar to what his predecessor Dervos Eroglu recommended in 2011 but got no where.
The Cypriot government said energy discussions with Turkish Cypriots should bear part of overarching reunification talks and that revenues would be divided in any case, not acceptable to Erdogan and Akinci without some other concessions.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)