Following the issue of an advisory note (Navtex) blocking an area in the Aegean between the Greek islands Limnos, Skyros and Lesbos from February 18 to March 2, the Turkish oceanographic vessel Cesme started surveys on February 18. A Greek government spokesman called it “an unnecessary move which does not help positive sentiment.”

Sending Cesme to the Aegean followed a meeting of Turkey’s National Security Council end of January, chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that declared that the country is “determined to protect its rights, relevance and interests in the East Med, the Aegean and Cyprus.” Erdogan appears to be determined to maintain a position of strength come-what-may. 

On February 23 the Turkish state news agency Anadolu, citing sources in the Turkish Ministry of Defense, said that “four Greek fighter jets harassed Cesme while conducting surveys in the Aegean.” The Greeks strongly denied this. In fact they said that Turkey appears to be orchestrating an ‘incident’ to portray Greece – to the US and the EU – as the instigator of tension, before the forthcoming crucial meetings in March. 

It could be related to the fact that the Biden administration and the EU are considering a tougher line with the country. Alarmed, Turkey may be trying to present itself as the victim, rather than the aggressor, in the area. If so, it will be surprising if this works.

Whatever lies behind these developments, it is very unfortunate. The timing of sending Cesme in the Aegean is at best regrettable. It is not something that could not wait until later.

The forthcoming exploratory meetings between Greece and Turkey, the European Council summit in March and the meeting on the Cyprus problem are important to all. I am sure the key players will work behind the scenes to calm the situation down and allow these to take place. How effective they will be I wouldn’t know, but then I do not have great expectations that there will be any breakthroughs. 

In the meanwhile, the Biden administration is considering a stronger response against Erdogan. Turkey’s maritime claims and actions in the East Med is one of the concerns shared by the EU and the US. This was confirmed following a telephone discussion end January, between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Bjoern Seibert, head of the European Commission cabinet, that identified Turkey, along with China, as issues of “mutual concern.” Coming so soon after US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken accused Turkey – at his Senate confirmation hearing – of not acting like an ally, it adds to the pressure on the country.

The Biden administration is increasingly questioning the state of the ‘strategic partnership’ with Turkey. Linking Turkey with China must be of great concern to Erdogan, who hopes for a closer relationship with the US, especially as it now looks likely that the US will side with the EU over Turkey’s aggressive pursuit of its maritime claims in the East Med. Turkey will be expected to abide by accepted international law, and not just its own, ‘unique’, interpretation of it.

But Turkey is determined to continue an aggressive policy of what it considers to be its rights in the East Med. The deployment of Cesme in the Aegean is indicative of Turkey’s determination to maintain the ante, even at a time when Erdogan has embarked on a charm offensive towards Europe and the US. But as the FT pointed out “this outbreak of reasonableness could be little more than precautionary atmospherics.” Turkey still sees maintaining tension as a means to enforce its demands – Erdogan probably perceives backing-off as a weakness. 

In a sign of hope for the future, the exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece that resumed at the end of January were constructive. The two sides agreed to a follow-up meeting in Athens. Greece suggested this takes place in early March. Let’s hope that the recent events do not derail this. Lowering tensions in the East Med is key to resolving problems and to future stability in the region.

Elsewhere in the East Med

Egypt’s Petroleum Minister, Tareq El Molla, in a first visit to Israel on February 21, agreed with his Israeli counterpart, Yuval Steinitz, to work together toward an inter-governmental agreement on the construction of an offshore gas pipeline from the Leviathan gas-field to Egypt’s liquefaction facilities. 

They specifically referred to increasing “gas exports to Europe through the liquefaction facilities in Egypt, in light of the growing demand in Europe for natural gas.” But this runs contrary to developments currently taking place in Europe about the future of natural gas in the EU’s future energy mix, in view of the commitments for a 55% cut in emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2050. 

The EU’s taxonomy regulation on the establishment of a framework to facilitate sustainable investment has left natural gas completely out. Even though the debate is still raging, the EU’s own projections show European gas consumption declining by 25%-30% by 2030. This, and low prices, make it difficult to see how Israel and Egypt expect to be able to proceed with plans to export LNG to Europe. After a spike in January, spot prices have returned to low levels. For LNG to be delivered in April the price in Japan has dropped to $6.25/mmbtu and in western Europe down to $5.37/mmbtu.

On a positive note, the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF) comes into force on 1 March. This could eventually become a catalyst in the development of regional energy markets, especially local natural gas resources to facilitate renewable energy integration.

And as a reminder of the environmental dangers that lurk in a closed sea like the Mediterranean, in early February there was an oil spill off the coast of Israel that has now spread all the way to Lebanon. Not much is known about it, but it is estimated to have been caused by about 1000 tonnes of tar leaking into the sea, which has now spread over about 190km of coastline. The dangers to the Mediterranean’s fragile environment are obvious.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here