The discovery of remarkable gas reserves over the past decade in the Eastern Mediterranean has reshaped the dynamics of the already tense region. Since the late 2000s, from the discovery of the Israeli Tamar and Leviathan fields, and the Egyptian Zohr field in 2015, all the way to the more recent discoveries of Calypso and Glaucus in Cyprus, the energy game in the Eastern Mediterranean is dictating the diplomacy and foreign policy moves among all the parties involved. The Greek effort to gain a key role in a process, which until recently Athens has been watching rather passively, and the decisive Turkish attempt to earn a share of the energy resources in an area where Ankara’s legitimate influence is internationally debated, should be added to this ever-changing and unstable environment.

Competing Pipeline Projects

Indeed, the geopolitical aspects are tightly connected to the developments in the energy sector. After examining two major gas pipeline projects — one fully operational and one to be completed within the next four years — the dynamics of how the energy sector is affecting diplomacy and vice versa will be explained.

On the one hand, there is the operational Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), a huge pipeline project which is being supplied by the Azerbaijani Shah Deniz Gas field, located in South Caspian Sea, and is running a 1,850 km distance (1,150 miles), all across Turkey. In the proximity of the Greek-Turkish borders between the towns of Ipsala and Kipoi, TANAP is being connected to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) which through another 878 km route (546 miles) is supplying natural gas to Greece, Albania, and eventually Italy via the Adriatic Sea. The technical infrastructure of TAP makes it connectable with additional pipelines and energy routes, meaning that the Southern Gas Corridor is already presenting a significant alternative for the European gas supply, with a great potential in the long-term.

Eastern Mediterranean

A map showing the TANAP-TAP pipelines and the projected EastMed route.

On the other hand, the so-called EastMed Gas pipeline is a prominent project in the making. The ambitious EastMed plan foresees a gigantic subsea pipeline system— approximately 1,900 km (1,180 miles) — which would be supplied with gas from the Israeli and Cypriot sources, reaching the Republic of Cyprus and from there the Greek island of Crete. From Crete the route continues to mainland Greece, starting from Peloponnese and moving all the way to northwestern Greece where the pipeline is planned to be connected with the Poseidon multisource natural gas interconnector, eventually supplying the European energy markets. In this case, as opposed to TAP, Greece would be linked directly to Italy via a 210-km subsea pipeline (130 miles), connecting the Greek Thesprotian coasts with the Italian coastal town of Otranto.

Regional Security Environment and Energy Politics

The competing interests are apparent, when the two projects are compared side by side. In the first case the key player is Turkey, considering that Ankara is functioning as the main energy hub in the region, receiving the Azeri natural gas and forwarding this to Europe through Greece. The tense relations between Athens and Ankara further leverage the Turkish position, considering that TAP is fundamentally depending on TANAP for its supply. Energy politics are also present here, as outlined by the traditionally close ties between Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have been emphasized even more in the recent Artsakh conflict.

In the case of the EastMed project, Greece is playing a pivotal role in terms of gas flow and distribution to Europe. The supplying parties involved are Cyprus and Israel; Greece and the Republic of Cyprus are historically bound together and are adopting a common foreign policy in several instances, while a joint defense doctrine is also often present. The Israeli role is more complex here, however there is no doubt that over the past decade both the Greek and Cypriot sides have been moving closer and closer to Israel. A recent indicative example is the unparalleled Greek-Israeli defense deal, a 20-year agreement worth US$1.68 billion. The EastMed project definitely fits in this agenda, as the tripartite cooperation between Athens, Nicosia, and Tel-Aviv is achieved, with energy security being the mutual parameter. In this sense, both Greece and Cyprus have possibly secured a vital ally— at least at the diplomatic level— in a potential escalation with Turkey.

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The EastMed Gas Forum and the US role

In September 2020, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was officially established following the signing of its charter by its members: Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine. In March 2021, France also joined the club, emphasizing the mutual geopolitical goals of the group. The cooperation in the energy sector has brought all those states together, in a pivotal move which could favor long-term stability in the region. The joint participation of Israel and Palestine is a significant step in and of itself. The potential development of the Gaza Marine gas field project will bring Egypt, Israel, and Palestine to the same table, with possible benefits for the Palestinian economy.

Greece and Cyprus have lately been at odds with Turkey over disagreements on exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelf issues.

The participation of Cyprus, Egypt, France, and Greece underscores the mutual interests of those countries. Greece and Cyprus have lately been at odds with Turkey over disagreements on exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelf issues, not to mention the remarkable historical disputes among them. French and Egyptian objectives have been conflicting with the Turkish ones, considering Ankara’s role in the Libyan civil war and its open support for the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups. Indeed, this is the very reason for Turkey’s fierce reaction to the EastMed Gas Forum developments and the alleged Turkish exclusion from the club. Ankara will keep trying to weaken the organization through all means available. The recent Palestinian objection over the UAE participation in the EastMed Gas Forum can be seen as likely a Turkish-orchestrated backchannel effort to undermine the integrity of the group.

At the same time, the growing cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean is welcomed by the US; as outlined in the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019. Washington has been seeking to boost the cooperation between Cyprus, Israel, and Greece and simultaneously upgrade the defense and military capabilities of the three countries. This two-fold action has been aiming to put some pressure on Turkey, which has been following a rather unpredictable and opportunistic strategy in the region, and also create a counter-balance to the Russian energy routes towards Europe. The latter objective, especially, will be decisively pursued by the current US administration.

Market Dynamics and Long-term Unpredictability

The critical difference between the two pipelines, is that TANAP— and TAP— are up and running while EastMed is a rather speculative project which will not be operational until 2025 at the earliest. Moreover, EastMed has to face three crucial challenges: its considerable price tag (an optimistic estimation puts it at approximately US$6 billion, but the figures could be much higher); the instability of natural gas prices and high volatility of the energy markets; and, most importantly, the EU long-term Green Deal strategy, setting the years 2030 (targeting 40 percent cuts as a greenhouse gas emissions goal) and 2050 (as a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal) as its benchmark points.

TANAP— and TAP— are up and running while EastMed is a rather speculative project which will not be operational until 2025 at the earliest.

The question here is how feasible the EastMed pipeline could be. In terms of political cooperation and diplomatic relations, the project is certainly justified. Limiting Moscow’s position internationally will remain one of the fundamental foreign policy goals for the Biden administration. While the United States is currently seeking to contain the European dependence on gas from Russia, supporting alternatives from the Caspian, through Turkey, or the Middle East, through Greece, the EU seems to have already made its choices.

Germany, one of the de facto leaders of the Union, has heavily invested in the Nord Stream Project and is actively supporting the Nord Stream 2 (whose majority shareholder is the Russian state company Gazprom) over which a standoff with the US is possible, as Washington is announcing sanctions on European entities involved in the Gazprom-led project. At the same time, the European Investment Bank has committed to stop funding traditional fossil fuel projects by the end of 2021, making things even harder for the viability of EastMed, given that the project is currently ran by the Italian Edison and the smaller stated-owned Greek DEPA. EastMed outweighs by far the scope of the companies if the necessary funding is not secured.

Under the current circumstances, no one could talk confidently about the future of the energy and the security landscape in the Mediterranean. This uncertainty harks back to the real potential of the EastMed project, the actual progress of which is yet to be seen, as it raises one key question: Could the possible geopolitical benefits of this endeavor offset the existent financial and market risks?