The US State Department two weeks ago sent a document to the Department of International Economic Affairs at the Greek Foreign Ministry. It was about the Eastern Mediterranean (EastMed) gas pipeline project. Greek media was alarmed by its content.
The document said that while Washington remained “committed to physically interconnecting the EastMed energy to Europe,” it was “shifting the US focus to electricity interconnectors that can support both gas and renewable energy sources.”
Three reasons were mentioned in the document for the withdrawal of US support: The need to move to clean energy technologies; the questionable financial viability of the project; and avoiding tension in the region.
The document is what is called a “non-paper” — in international relations, a document that does not reflect the ultimate position of a government but may be taken as a basis for discussion without binding any of the parties. This was the reason the US State Department sent the document to the Economic Affairs Department of the Greek Foreign Ministry and not to the Greek Embassy in Washington. The non-paper was not sent to the embassies of Israel and Cyprus in Washington either, though the EastMed gas project involves these two countries as well.
This US initiative was not of course welcomed in Greece; It was duly criticized, but not as harshly as might have been expected. Cyprus Mail, a daily newspaper, says that there is a simplistic way the Greek Cypriots view anything to do with Turkey — if a decision or policy is good for Turkey it must be bad for Cyprus. As to the US position on the EastMed project, the daily believes that the US policy shift might have been doing a big favor to Greece and Cyprus as it would allow them to abandon an unsustainable project.
It has been known since the early stages that the project would be costly and burdensome. Technically it might be feasible, but at a cost, and this cost was not economically sustainable. The transport of EastMed gas was going to cost the European consumer two-and-a-half or three times more than Russian gas transported through TurkStream.
The emphasis on the need to move to clean energy technologies is an important shift from the Trump to the Biden administration. It is also a good omen that the EU woke up to the reality that unabated use of natural gas was not compatible with long-term environmental objectives, but the cost of the project was probably the determining factor for withdrawing support.
The pro-government media in Turkey jubilantly welcomed the news. The most important point for Ankara was the reference to “tension in the region.” Turkey was left out of cooperation in the EastMed project despite having the longest coast in the East Mediterranean; the result of its self-isolation in the region. It does not have an ambassador in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Damascus or Cyprus. Its relations with Greece are laden with problems. The US paper is not a remedy to Turkey’s isolation in the region.
On the Greek side, the non-paper may have created a more favorable atmosphere in Turkish-Greek relations but it cannot be taken for granted that, because of this paper, Athens will become more amenable to solving all of its complicated problems with Turkey. Ankara and Athens may only use the new atmosphere as a facilitator to sort out their grievances.
Washington’s view that the EastMed project was raising tension in the region may encourage Turkey. Several months after problematic relations with Turkey, Biden may have come to the conclusion that Turkey is after all a NATO ally, has the second biggest army in NATO and is a middle-size regional player. This is all the more important now that tension is rising in the Black Sea region and more specifically between Russia and Ukraine. In case of a military conflagration in the region, Turkey may be forced to assume an important role.
In light of this background, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a first step in distancing himself from Russia. Deviating from his usual practice of reading via the prompter, he used for the first time language that might irritate Russia. He said: “Here, for example, what did Russia in Ukraine. It crushed into Crimea” (He even used a more pejorative Turkish expression for the word “crushed”). Russia will probably respond to this statement in due course.
Coming back to the US initiative, it is too early to tell whether the non-paper will usher in a new era for Turkey-US relations.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.
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