Time to transform the Eastern Mediterranean

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The genuine prospect of Cypriot reunification could serve as a political pivot to the EU. Pictured: Northern Cyprus. [greenacre8/Flickr]

The massive resources available in the Eastern Mediterranean offer the prospect of employment and stability. The pursuit of common interests could unlock enormous untapped potential in the region, write Mehmet Ö?ütçü and Stephen Jones.

Mehmet Ö?ütçü and Stephen Jones are Chairman of and Senior Adviser to the Global Resources Partnership, which is an energy, natural resources and investment advisory group that is active worldwide.

The Eastern Mediterranean is a hub of political uncertainty, economic instability and military conflict. Migrants are streaming through the region in an attempt to reach the safer and more prosperous countries further west – although the political will to absorb them is rapidly disappearing after the Paris attacks.

The perilous situation of the Greek economy, as well as the febrile political atmosphere in several Western Balkan countries, continues to demand the EU’s close attention. The recent downing of a Russian military jet by Turkish forces testifies to the incendiary security situation. Both Egypt and Israel are beset with their own increasingly serious internal security problems.

However, it would be a mistake to allow these crises to overshadow the vast potential for regional cooperation and economic integration in one particularly vital sector: energy.

For too long, politics has been an obstacle to developing energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. The anticipated offshore reserves in the region could have a transformative effect over decades, delivering stability, incentivising peace and creating the jobs that young people across the Eastern Mediterranean so desperately need.

It is high time to propose a regional energy champion to advocate integration and partnership, dispute settlement, data sharing, analysis and engagement with key stakeholders in a dynamic and informal setting, free from political animosities and tensions. This champion is the proposed Eastern Mediterranean Energy Community (EMEC).

The possibilities for EMEC are limited only by the political short-sightedness that has often characterised the region. When countries start to identify common interests and work towards mutually beneficial outcomes, the dividends are dramatic – the EU is a prime example.

EMEC should begin life first and foremost as a vehicle for exploration, extraction and export. As it grows in scope, it will become an important focus of energy diplomacy, research and investment.

But it is not only the Eastern Mediterranean that will benefit from the development of EMEC. The subsidiary effects on the EU could be substantial: reliable and accessible energy supplies, less dependence on certain markets for hydrocarbon imports and a more peaceful and stable periphery. The assumed involvement of Cyprus – where reunification of north and south is now finally a serious possibility – would also serve as a bridge to the EU politically.

This initiative should be established first at an informal level, bringing together energy companies, industry specialists, academics, security experts and the financial sector. Its development and success as a platform for developing energy possibilities would then bring governments on board, as members and observers, through annual ministerial meetings. A small secretariat guided by a rotating presidency would manage its working programme.

Major oil and gas projects in the region are progressing slowly. The Aphrodite field off Cyprus will remain underdeveloped for as long as the island remains divided. Israel’s Leviathan and Tamar offshore projects show much promise, as does Egypt’s Zohr field, but political and financial constraints are hindering their full potential.

Lebanon, Syria and Turkey too have reported interesting discoveries offshore but they too suffer from similar constraints. The regional export infrastructure is also poorly developed and plans for the future lack a cohesive, integrated vision. A coordinated, long-term approach fostered by EMEC would enable the Eastern Mediterranean to exploit its advantages and become an energy powerhouse.

Turkey’s role is critical to the success of regional energy integration. The recent election result, which strengthened the governing AKP, could be seen at first glance to weaken the likelihood of progress in the region, especially over Cyprus.

In fact, Turkey is likely to use this development to consolidate its emergence as the key regional power, while simultaneously seeking progress on relations with the EU, which means progress over Cyprus too. The recent news that the EU and Turkey will open accession negotiations on the economic policy chapter appears to confirm Ankara’s dual-pronged approach.

Furthermore, the tension between Turkey and Russia is likely to have some short-term negative consequences for energy cooperation between the two countries, not least with regard to the mooted Turkish Stream pipeline. Ankara will likely move to accelerate its diversification away from Russia and assume a leadership role of a new regional gas alliance incorporating Iran, Azerbaijan and Kurdistan.

Nevertheless, the existence of an Eastern Mediterranean Energy Community would undoubtedly prevent bilateral tensions from disrupting energy cooperation by locking in parties to a process of dialogue and dispute resolution. EMEC can build on models of cooperation already in existence to avoid unnecessary delays and duplication.

Anyone who travels regularly across the Eastern Mediterranean cannot fail to be struck by the many commonalities of culture and shared history. One particular common interest is the pursuit of economic prosperity and political stability in a region where, notwithstanding these cultural similarities, such progress remains elusive. EMEC offers a path towards both goals by placing energy policy at the heart of regional cooperation.

Our discussions with key stakeholders in the region and beyond have helped map out a vision for EMEC, and we believe the time is ripe to make this concept a reality. With goodwill, focus and a pragmatic pursuit of common interests, EMEC could become the core of regional economic integration. Nowhere is this aspiration more important than in Brussels.

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