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Turkish disputes on Cyprus

Turkey is insisting on resuming its gas exploration around the disputed island of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean amid threats of sanctions from the European Union

Bassem Aly , Monday 1 Jul 2019
Turkish drilling vessel
File Photo: Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz sets sail in Izmit Bay, on its way to the Mediterranean Sea, off the port of Dilovasi, Turkey, June 20, 2019 (Reuters)

Turkey will not stop its gas and oil exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, even as the European Union (EU) has said it is ready to punish Turkey economically if it does so.

The dispute is ongoing, and the parties to it have recently revealed their positions publicly.

The matter has gone beyond a clash over the control of natural resources, with both Turkey and Cyprus making claims of territorial sovereignty over the area in which the drilling is taking place.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently that “we are continuing and will be continuing to search in areas that are ours.” Turkey claims that its drilling activities are taking place inside its continental shelf and do not signify a violation of international law.

However, Cyprus and the EU disagree. On 20 June, the European Council “strongly condemned Turkey’s continued illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.”

“The European Council calls on Turkey to show restraint, respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus and refrain from any such actions. The EU will continue to closely monitor developments and stands ready to respond appropriately and in full solidarity with Cyprus. The European Council will remain seized of the matter and will revert accordingly,” it said in a statement.

The statement came on the same day that Turkey sent a second drilling ship into the disputed area. On order from Turkey’s Energy Minister Fatih Donmez, the Yavuz moved from the port of Dilovasi in northwestern Turkey to the Karpas Peninsula in Cyprus. It will drill 3,300 m (10,827 feet) deep into the seabed in an area that is expected to be gas-rich for exploitation.

“We will continue our efforts to achieve regional peace by distributing the riches of Cyprus and the Mediterranean in a fair manner,” Donmez said on 11 June.

“Our extensive and long-term exploration and drilling activities in the region will resume as planned without making concessions to our legitimate rights in the license areas.”

History also plays a role, since the crisis between Greece and Turkey in 1974 over the Greek-speaking island of Cyprus ended with Turkey taking roughly 36 per cent of the island and declaring it to be the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Cyprus and Turkey have not had diplomatic relations since. 

Only Turkey recognises this state, which faces international isolation. The UN considers it to be territory of the Republic of Cyprus that is under Turkish occupation, meaning that for Cyprus and the EU the northern waters are parts of Southern Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), allowing it to carry out fishing, drilling or other economic activities in them.

Former EU ambassador and head of delegation to Turkey Marc Pierini said that “contentious issues between Cyprus and the EU are many and have been around for a long time.”

“It is worth remembering that on 1 May 2004, the entire island of Cyprus became a member of the EU. In addition, during the various sessions of negotiations toward a comprehensive settlement on Cyprus, both sides on the island agreed that, once the island is reunified, the resources from its territorial waters will benefit equally all the communities on the island. In that sense, this issue has been provisionally settled, pending a comprehensive settlement,” he added.

However, Turkey has recently ramped up its right to drill in Cyprus’s territorial waters, even sending its navy to escort the drilling ships and making various threats.

Pierini referred to a “lesser-known development” that involves a recent statement by the Republic of Cyprus about the transfer by air from Turkey to Northern Cyprus of a sizeable number of irregular migrants who then cross illegally into the republic.

“Turkey has several pending issues in the foreign policy field: Syria, Russian missiles, relations with the US, relations with NATO, and a standstill in its relations with the EU. Ramping up the narrative and taking hostile actions with regard to Cyprus will only add tensions to relations with the EU, which has recently reiterated its full support to Cyprus,” Pierini concluded.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Turkish disputes on Cyprus

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