Cyprus has been hit hard by economic misfortunes recently (accidental destruction of its main power station in 2011, contagion from the eurozone crisis in 2012), but now has a big opportunity to develop significant offshore gas resources. However, its chances of proceeding with this project are currently prejudiced by political tensions and uncertainties surrounding its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This is because Turkey is sharply contesting the right of Cyprus to go ahead, albeit for reasons that seem to be more connected to the stalled peace process for reunifying the island than matters of international maritime law, even if the latter are themselves complex and open to endless legal argument.
This policy brief argues that none of the interested parties – the two Cypriot communities, Turkey and the European Union – benefit from the status quo and that, on the contrary, all forego significant benefits that would come from a resolution of the conflict, development of the new gas resources, and improved Turkish-EU relations. While the peace process seems stuck, objectively there are opportunities for a rapid and substantial interim settlement, with maybe a less heavy agenda than that of the Annan Plan and the subsequent fruitless negotiations over a comprehensive agreement. For Turkey there are high stakes involved for its foreign policy: Turkey seems to be getting itself into a remarkably awkward diplomatic position in relation to the offshore Cypriot gas, in apparent opposition to a coincidence of interests of the EU, US, Israel, Cyprus and Russia, all of which support Cyprus’s rights to its EEZ. The unresolved Cyprus question is itself quite benign compared to the grave problems of strategic security to the east of Turkey (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan). Most disturbing therefore is the current escalation of tensions over Cypriot gas, involving threats of realpolitik flavour and even of military confrontation between Turkey, as NATO member and EU applicant, and Cyprus as EU member state whose virtual allies now include Israel and Russia. Political leaders responsible for the affairs of Cyprus should engineer together a paradigm shift back into the safe waters of conflict resolution, reconciliation and international law.
Michael Emerson is Associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS.
This paper is published as Policy Brief No 2 in the context of the Global Turkey in Europe project carried out by the Stiftung Mercator, Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and the Istanbul Policy Center (IPC).
This paper can be downloaded here.