Written by Paraskevi Soultatou
On the 10th of January, the US Embassy in Greece released a non-paper announcing the US will focus more on gas and renewable resources and vital energy markets in the Eastern Mediterranean subregion (EastMed). While they stated they will continue to support the efforts of “physically interconnecting EastMed energy to Europe”, the US characterized the EastMed gas pipeline project as a non-vital and unclear energy technology. This statement is yet another blow to the already geopolitically shaky energy project signed between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. The withdrawal of American support may make the project unfeasible, as the pipeline ties with longstanding tensions in the region.
The East Med project and the importance for the alliance
The Eastern Mediterranean is a subregion of the Mediterranean Sea that has generated great geopolitical interest the recent years because of its large hydrogen supply and Turkey’s ambitions to become the controlling power in the region. Diplomacy in the EastMed has been given structure through the EastMed Gas Forum created in 2019, which includes Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Italy, and Jordan.
The EastMed project was signed at the beginning of 2020 by Greece, Israel, and Cyprus. The purpose of this gas pipeline project was to supply the involved countries and South Europe with natural gas from the Levantine Basin. The fact that Turkey was not involved in this project or in the EastMed Gas Forum meant that the Turks were excluded from both the energy benefits of the project and the energy-related diplomacy in the region. In the same year, Turkey signed an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) with Libya that disputed the sovereign rights of several Greek islands in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the Kastelorizo Complex. The Greeks responded to this move with a partial EEZ delimitation with Egypt.
The EastMed Project has had several serious issues that could have ended the project from the beginning. Firstly, the region is too politically unstable for such a big project to succeed. Due to Turkey’s security threats and the unsolved Cypriot Problem, the environment is currently not attractive for investors. Secondly, Turkey and Libya’s EEZ created a problem for the EastMed project, as - if it is to be continued - they need to give permission to go through their delimitation. Because Greece does not recognize their EEZ, it would never ask Turkey and Libya to give their permission, as this would mean that Greece accepts the legitimacy of their EEZ. This would have consequences for Greece’s sovereignty over the disputed islands.
The role of the US and EU in this project
Trump’s administration supported the EastMed project because the EU was looking to turn its energy dependence away from Russia and other players in the market. The support of Trump’s administration for the EastMed project was noteworthy since, during his presidency, Trump maintained close ties with Turkey. When Biden’s administration took control in 2021, there were no clear signs that the US would abandon the project, as US relations with Turkey were weakening, especially after Biden publicly recognized the Armenian genocide. Even the EU, who were initially divided in their support for the gas pipeline, eventually funded its research and supported the initiative as a stepping-stone to establishing European energy independence.
However, lately, Turkish-American relations have started to improve again. In this light, the US’s most recent statement on the EastMed project did not come as a surprise. Other countries involved in the project started to quietly abandon it as well. The new government of Israel, for example, has recently started to improve its relations with Turkey, which is likely the reason why they haven’t yet spoken out against the US statement.
Greece has also seemingly lost its will to continue the project, as the government didn't seem overly discontent with the US' non-paper, and had also lost Exxon Mobil and Total’s interest to start mining operations on the island of Crete. The EastMed project was too expensive and complicated. Combined with the political instability in the region, this resulted in an overall lack of investments. The three states involved in the project likely knew about this risk from the beginning. This is the reason why they developed cooperative energy diplomacy through the EastMed Gas Forum. It now seems, without the hoped result of creating a more viable climate for investment.
More puzzling is the stance of the EU. Given Europe’s current energy crisis following the political tensions between Russia and Ukraine, it is unexpected that the EU does not support the continuation of the EastMed project. Even though the EU has been divided on this project from the beginning, the EastMed project could be a way for European governments to get a handle on the current gas crisis and to absorb some of the economic damage for their citizens. Nevertheless, it seems that the EU is struggling to formulate a united strategic energy plan, and it currently does not include the EastMed project.
The effect in the Eastern Mediterranean
As aforementioned, the Eastern Mediterranean subregion has historically been politically unstable. Therefore, careful diplomacy is important for security in the region. Turkey’s regional ambitions, however, have resulted in an increasingly aggressive stance towards neighboring countries. The extensive energy wealth that exists in the Eastern Mediterranean, therefore, cannot attract enough investors because of the region’s ongoing geopolitical instability and disagreements over sea rights.
From a geopolitical perspective, Turkey seems to have ‘won’ the diplomatic battle over the collapsing project. The Turkish relations with Israel seem to be better than they were before and this is a serious threat for both the future of the EastMed project and Greece’s and Cyprus’ diplomatic influence in the region. For the foreseeable future, the Cypriot Problem has no prospect for resolution, and this is the biggest obstacle for Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus to create a fruitful environment for energy cooperation and better diplomatic relations.
Last but not least, the energy diplomacy of the EU seems to be generally sluggish, and it is even more apparent in this region. The EU’s focus on green energy is commendable, but it needs to be combined with projects that are to a lesser extent green in order to satisfy Europe’s energy needs. While the EU’s diplomatic relations with Turkey are currently in a good state, it is not enough to help Greece and Turkey overcome their disagreement in order for an energy diplomatic cooperation in the subregion.
In the end, the fact that the EastMed project would lose the support of the US was an overall predictable outcome. What was not predictable, however, is the fact that even the states involved didn’t show a substantial effort in keeping the project alive. The energy diplomacy of the EastMed hasn’t yet succeeded in creating a stable environment for investors and the geopolitical tensions are still an obstacle to hard to overcome for the moment.
About the author: Paraskevi (Evi) Soultatou
Paraskevi (Evi) is passionate about international security and cooperation and is specialized in nuclear strategy and intelligence. She holds a Sociology bachelor from the University of Crete and two masters, an MSc in International and European Affairs from the University of Piraeus and an MA in Security,. Paraskevi at the moment is a Research Intern at IDIS Institute of Athens, she lives in the Netherlands and cooperates with three more think tanks