Turkey Drilling Plans Off Cyprus Spikes East Mediterranean Tension

May 9, 2019
Kostis Geropoulos/New Europe

ATHENS – The European Union and the United States expressed their concerns with Turkey’s intention to drill within Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a move that could escalate tensions in the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean region.

European Parliament head Antonio Tajani said on 6 May the EU is “greatly concerned” by Turkey’s plans to drill offshore within Cyprus’ EEZ. “I call on the Turkish authorities to show restraint and act in accordance with international law by ceasing illegal operations and removing support vessels from the EEZ of Cyprus immediately,” Tajani said in a press release. “Turkey’s intention to drill within the EEZ of Cyprus is a violation of international law. The Republic of Cyprus has the full and sovereign right to explore and exploit natural resources within its EEZ.”

On 5 May, the US said Washington is “deeply concerned by Turkey’s announced intentions to begin offshore drilling operations in an area claimed by the Republic of Cyprus as its Exclusive Economic Zone. This step is highly provocative and risks raising tensions in the region. We urge Turkish authorities to halt these operations and encourage all parties to act with restraint.”

Reuters quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying that Turkish seismic research vessel Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa was continuing work in the region. “We will conduct drilling in areas of Turkey’s continental shelf and we are starting our drilling work at points identified by Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa,” he was quoted as saying in northern Cyprus on 4 May.

Meanwhile, Cypriot authorities have submitted to the UN the coordinates delineating the boundaries of Cyprus’ EEZ and the continental shelf, Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported on 6 May, adding that Cyprus’ government also launched procedures to have an international arrest warrant issued for the crew of Turkey’s Fatih drillship off Cyprus.

Cyprus Natural Hydrocarbons Company CEO Charles Ellinas told New Europe on 7 May Turkey has made these claims and threats in the past, but now it is about to act on them. “There may be a number of reasons why now, including Turkey raising the stakes before the possible resumptions of negotiations for the Cyprus problem being pursued by the UK Secretary General Antonio Guterres,” Ellinas said, speculating that it could also be related to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attempting to deflect Turkish public opinion away from the internal problems he is facing in Turkey after he backed a controversial decision to cancel the results of last month’s mayoral elections in Istanbul.

“Whatever the reasons, this is a massive provocation that can destabilize the region. By doing this Turkey is trying to enforce its own interpretation of what constitutes its exclusive economic zone and what it defines as its ‘legal rights’ in the East Med, ignoring UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) – this claim is independent of the Cyprus problem. Cyprus is using all means available to it to respond to this, but may be unable to stop it,” Ellinas argued, adding that it is important, with strong international help, to find a way to achieve a longer-term resolution of these problems, including the Cyprus problem.

Ellinas speculated that Turkey may choose to escalate the stakes by following this by drilling in areas it claims within Cyprus’ declared EEZ. “In addition, what happens if it actually makes a hydrocarbon discovery? Turkey is clearly trying to create a fait accompli with potentially immense consequences,” he said.

Commenting on the EU and US reaction against Turkey’s drilling plans, Ellinas said, “Strong US and EU support, and support by other East Med and friendly countries, is very useful, but I do not believe it is enough to stop Turkey’s actions. So far, including other challenging issues such as over the S-400, Turkey appears to be determined to go its own way irrespective of international reactions.”

The US has threatened to impose sanctions if Ankara moves forward and seals a deal to buy te S-400 missile defence systems from Russia.

Asked if Turkey could affect the implementation of Cyprus’ energy deals with giants Italy’s ENI, France’s Total and US’ ExxonMobil, Ellinas said, ”I do not think so. These companies are used to work in difficult environments and Turkey’s actions will not deter them from their plans unless, of course, they affect the safety of their staff and contractors as happened with the Turkish frigates stopping ENI’s drilling rig last year.” However, Ellinas warned that this is still potentially a risk as these companies proceed with their exploration plans in areas claimed by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots.

(Kostis Geropoulos is Energy & Russian Affairs Editor for New Europe newspaper and writes the Energy Insider column)


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