The EastMed gas pipeline between Cyprus, Greece and Israel will revolutionise the economies and geo-politics of the region. The project comes from an emerging alliance between the three countries who must move forward cautiously in the face of neighbouring States’ opposition.
Eastern Mediterranean: the Bigger Picture
On December 20th, the Prime Ministers of Cyprus, Greece and Israel converged on the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. All three parties publicly committed to signing a high-level agreement in the near future. Such an agreement would solidify one of the longest and deepest underwater gas pipeline in the world.
It is expected to deliver approximately 10 billion cubic meters (BCM) of natural gas to the European Union (EU) through Greece and Italy. The EU is keen to support the project and diversify its natural gas imports away from the heavily sanctioned Russian Federation and declining North Sea gas production. The EastMed project would fulfil roughly 10-15% the EU’s projected natural gas needs. The United States is also supporting the project as it sees the growing trilateral alliance as a bulwark of democracy and stability in a largely authoritarian and war-torn region.
A New Regional Alliance
This development is also the culmination of an alliance that has been years in the making. The last decade has seen growing cooperation between Cyprus, Greece and Israel as all three countries have been supporting one another in various strategic areas. This includes deepening military ties in the face of an increasingly unstable and conflict prone Eastern Mediterranean. These developments are specifically aimed at Turkey, a neighboring state that has become increasingly aggressive and authoritarian. Turkey is threatening to derail the project within the context of ongoing Cypriot Conflict.
The project will be the culmination of a strategic alliance between three smaller countries who are faced with increasingly more aggressive competitors and crisis’s in the region. Turkey, Russia and Iran are all increasingly active in the region looking to forward their own interests. As the United States continues to play less of a role on the ground Cyprus, Greece and Israel will be able to create positive reinforcement through bilateral relations or the newly created secretariat economically, politically and militarily.
Who Stands to Benefit?
The domestic economies of the individual states within the trilateral alliance stand to benefit immensely from the project. Cyprus is estimated to have roughly 4.5 BCM of natural gas in the Aphrodite Field which is currently being developed within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a huge sum. Israel is estimated to have significantly larger amounts within its EEZ in the form of the Leviathan and Tamar fields. Both of these small countries will benefit immensely from being able to export to the massive EU market through Greece. The latter’s own economy will likely see a boost from the investment needed to support the infrastructure of the pipeline. There is also the possibility of linking the pipeline to the operational Egyptian Zohr Field.
The EU will benefit from being able to diversify its energy sources. It would allow the EU to guarantee some energy security to its Member States as North Sea production falls. An over reliance on Russian natural gas also places the EU in a difficult position, because it continues sanctioning Russia over its activities in Ukraine and the meddling in the democratic processes of EU Member States. The EU will likely try to lower market prices on natural gas which have been steadily rising the last few years. In the long run, the EastMed Pipeline may provide nearly double the expected output of 10 BCM for export if ongoing offshore exploration provides positive outcomes.
Who is Missing Out?
Turkey and Russia are both set to lose out given current developments. Greece and Turkey have a historically difficult relationship which has recently flared up within the context of the 2016 Coup and Refugee Crisis. Cyprus and Turkey continue to butt headsover the northern half of the island following the 1974 War. Israel and Turkey were once close allies. The rise of Erdogan and the AK Party over a decade ago made Turkey a major patron of Hamas. The Mavi Marmara Incident has contributed to the deterioration in ties between the two sides. Turkey would have been the natural route for the Pipeline, but the ongoing disputes show why this will never happen.
Russia is the main supplier of natural gas to the EU and a historical ally of Greece. If the EU is able to continue to diversify its energy needs away from the Russian gas giants – of which the EastMed is a small but important first step – Russia will lose leverage over the EU within the context of both gas prices and geopolitical issues between the two sides. The historically close relationship between Russia and Greece is also in jeopardy. The pipeline project is heavily supported by the United States; when we couple this with Russia and Turkey’s warming ties, Russia appears to be losing a historically important relationship in an increasingly strategic region.
Two major obstacles to the project are present in the form of the Lebanese based Hezbollah and Turkey. Hezbollah is Israel’s arch-foe, the two sides fought an all-out war in 2006, a conflict neither side wishes to repeat. This is something Hezbollah is attempting to use for its own advantage threatening to strike at Israel’s sea-based gas fields. Israel is preparing for this outcome, but Hezbollah’s missile arsenal is vast and powerful; any escalation in conflict, especially given the ongoing Operation Northern Shield may lead to disruptions in the project.
President Erdogan has made it very clear that he is vehemently against any development of the Cypriot gas fields within the EEZ without some form of resolution to the conflict. This has materialized with Turkish naval action in the past and with the beginning of own explorations in the EEZ. Turkey has used military force in the past and ongoing developments in the region -specifically the US withdrawal from Syria following a phone call with Erdogan – has emboldened Turkey. Aggressive action by Turkey to safeguard its own interests cannot be discounted.