Cyprus Peace Talks Rekindled Amidst Energy Tension

Two years following the most recent attempt to resolve the Cyprus problem in the Swiss town of Crans-Montana, the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, will meet on August 9 with the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci. The meeting will be held at the office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Cyprus, Elizabeth Spehar, in an effort to restart negotiations amidst rising tensions over natural resources exploitation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Discussions with the participation of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will continue in New York during the UN General Assembly in September.

Natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean over the last decade have turned the region into an energy hot-spot, but have at the same time exposed long-existing disputes among neighbours regarding rights over these newly-found resources.

Greece and Cyprus were quick to develop a close energy and security cooperation with Israel, which was followed by similar tripartite working arrangements with Egypt and Jordan. These efforts have been further consolidated by the signing of exploitation deals with energy supermajors in both the Greek and Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Involving the American ExxonMobil, Italy’s ENI and Total of France, with the United States and the EU also joining in support of the region’s potential as an alternative energy source.

The recent dispatch of two Turkish drilling ships within Cypriot territorial waters was condemned as illegal by Cyprus, Greece and the EU, with the latter deciding to reduce its financial assistance and suspend high-level talks with Turkey. On the other hand, Ankara claims that exploration is taking place within the territorial waters of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey.

Sharing the island’s hydrocarbons is the latest contentious point on a long list of issues dividing the two communities since 1974. UN-facilitated negotiations have been taking place ever since with the aim of establishing a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. Cyprus’s accession to the EU in 2004 might not have led to its reunification, but it opened the way for meaningful interaction between the two sides. The presence of Turkish forces in Cyprus on the one hand and differences in the interpretation of full political equality on the other, have been the major sticking points in negotiations over the last 15 years.

The continuation of the status quo on the island would only mean the resumption of tensions between a politically and economically marginalised Turkey and a military vulnerable Cyprus. The incentive to benefit from the island’s natural resources might prove strong enough to encourage all sides to step up efforts for a solution, even though a definitive timeline is still out of sight.

Resolving the Cyprus problem could be the key to unlock the complex Eastern Mediterranean equation, allowing for unobstructed energy and security cooperation and the consolidation of the emerging political and economic structures in the region. It will also free up valuable diplomatic capital between the region’s main actors (Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt) and no longer constitute a concern from a transatlantic point of view.