Cyprus: The New Key to European Energy Security?

March 25, 2014 Topic: Energy Region: Europe

Cyprus: The New Key to European Energy Security?

Resolving the divided isle's disputes could be the first step to reducing Russian power in the natural gas markets.

The European Union’s dithering response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea can be blamed in large part on Europe’s overdependence on Russian energy imports. In response, EU leaders met on March 21 to discuss diversifying its energy sources, including seeking natural gas supplies from the United States to supplant Russia’s grip over European energy markets. Yet Europe will also need to search its own backyard for alternate supplies given the significant time and investment it would take to establish a supply route from the United States capable of usurping Russia’s supply.

Europe should focus this search on the Eastern Mediterranean for reasons that transcend the immediate benefit of diversifying Europe’s energy market. A recently discovered gas field off the coast of Israel may provide Europe with an alternate natural gas supply in its own neighborhood, while simultaneously helping solve a fifty-five-year dispute on the island of Cyprus.

Turkey, like the rest of Europe, desperately needs more energy imports from alternate, reliable sources. According to the US Energy Information Agency, Turkey’s energy consumption is expected to double in the next decade. Nearly three-fourths of the Turkey’s natural-gas imports come from Russia and the Middle East. Russia has repeatedly shown that it is not afraid to use its energy exports as a tool for political leverage and the unabated civil war in Syria has undermined the Middle East’s stature as a stable supply source, neither of which augurs well for the future of energy security in Turkey. Europe, in turn, receives 40 percent of its fuel imports from Russia, which equates to significant political leverage. As one Italian diplomat told the Economist, “What sanctions can you place on a country that can cut off your gas?”

In 2010, a massive natural-gas deposit estimated at over 540 billion cubic meters of gas was discovered off the coast of Israel. Turkey has eyed the so-called Leviathan gas field as a source for energy and revenue as a transit point to the wider European energy market. But current pipeline plans from the Leviathan field to Turkey would have to cross over Cypriot territory to avoid Syrian and Lebanese territory, and potentially include building a liquefied natural gas plant in Vassilikos, Cyprus. Cyprus would never allow this without rapprochement with Turkey, which invaded Cyprus in 1974 and helped establish the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state only recognized by Turkey.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, highlighting the conflict’s complexity and intransigence. In 2004, the majority of Greek Cypriots voted against the unification of the island as a federal state while most Turkish Cypriots voted in favor in simultaneous UN-sponsored referenda. Cyprus entered the EU that year divided.

The good news is that Cypriot leaders have linked the Leviathan energy deposit with an avenue toward reconciliation. Turkey, for its part, needs this energy deal as a channel to normalize bilateral relations with Israel after the diplomatically disastrous Mavi Marmara flotilla raid in 2010.

The gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean alone are too small to supplant Russia’s supplies to Europe. Yet energy imports to Europe remain the linchpin of Russia’s economy. If the EU or its largest members announced they were seeking alternate energy supplies that bypassed Russia, including deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, Russian President Vladimir Putin would certainly take notice. This isn’t the consequence Putin deserves, but something is better than nothing, and nothing—public reprimands and lackluster targeted sanctions notwithstanding—is what the EU has done so far.

A resolution of the Cyprus conflict would also unblock the EU’s relationship with NATO at a time when joint EU-NATO actions on Russia’s actions in Crimea would send a powerful message to Putin on the sanctity of European security. Turkey is a member of NATO but not the EU, and Cyprus is a member of the EU but not NATO. Both countries use their respective membership statuses to forestall any official bilateral cooperation between the two institutions, which share twenty-two member states.

Natural-gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean can play a pivotal role in catalyzing a final resolution of the Cyprus conflict. A confluence of other factors is already tipping the scales in favor of a Turkey-Cyprus settlement process, including substantial under-the-radar shuttle diplomacy by US diplomats, Cyprus’s dire financial straits, and Turkey’s need to redeem itself in the eyes of its European allies after the harsh response to the Gezi Park protests, which elicited widespread international condemnation. British diplomat David Hannay once famously opined, “nobody ever lost money betting against a Cyprus solution.” But recent developments, including the cross talks initiated in recent weeks between Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, the first in over half a century, are fostering a sense of cautious optimism.

Developing a non-Russian natural gas export infrastructure to Europe will take years, but it is crucial for the EU to more effectively curb Russian behavior toward Ukraine, Georgia, and its other neighbors. As the transatlantic community searches for alternate energy sources for Europe, it should think strategically about the political opportunities that natural-gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean provide. The Leviathan gas deposit could help finally resolve the Cyprus dispute while curtailing Russia’s energy leverage over Europe for the “next Crimea.”

Robbie Gramer staffs the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He tweets at @RobbieGramer. All views expressed are his own.

Image: Derivative of Wikimedia Commons/carport. CC BY-SA 3.0.