IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2024

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Energy and Maritime Borders in the Eastern Mediterranean

Dr Filippos Proedrou

Senior Lecturer in Global Political Economy
University of South Wales

The eastern Mediterranean remains a deeply contested geopolitical region. This contestation is centred around the dispute in Cyprus, but also extends to controversy around littoral states’ maritime zones which weaves together opposing alliances, positing them in an orbit of conflict with each other. In this short article I aim to sketch out the main conflict dynamics and alliance constellations in the region and showcase how they are linked with and aggravated by the principal conflict triggers that energy politics, the energy transition and climate change generate. To do so, I employ the terminology and engage with the sub-field of geopolitics to capture the effects of oil and gas, new (or clean) energy geopolitics (or geopolitics of renewables) and climate geopolitics.

The Borders Conundrum

Geopolitics can be understood as the infight for space and power played out in a specific geographical context and eloquently illustrates the current dynamics in the region. Despite the Greek-Turkish rapprochement and the reopening of diplomatic talks in 2023, the two sides’ positions remain divergent over their sovereignty rights, borders and maritime zones, and largely incompatible with each other. Not only do bilateral disputes around the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones remain unbridged, but, in the case of Cyprus, Turkey insists on the partition of the island along the Turkish occupation lines since the 1974 invasion, while Greece thrusts its diplomatic weight behind the two communities, pushing for a one-state solution for the last remaining divided European country.

Turkish demands on Cypriot soil, together with pledges on the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, extend the Turkish maritime zone considerably. Such pledges are mirrored in Libya’s unilateral extension of its maritime zone, sealed in the Turkish-Libyan Memorandum of Understanding of 2019. These territorial projections shrink Egypt, Greece and Cyprus’s maritime space, leading to these states’ fervent reaction and condemnation of such aggressive acts in the United Nations. Broadly speaking, Turkey and Libya retain a united front against diachronic allies Greece and Cyprus, and Egypt and Israel, and their aspirations in the region. This quartet has strengthened its common posturing over the last 15 years, partly in response to this challenge (Tziarras, 2021). Converging geopolitical and energy interests explain this constellation of alliances.

The Energy Conundrum: From Oil and Gas to Clean Energy Geopolitics

Energy geopolitics captures the infight “for access to natural resources and the trade routes that bring those resources to consumers” (Proedrou, 2018: 147). In this understanding, the demarcation of maritime zones is an essential prerequisite for the exploration of oil and gas resources and has motivated littoral states to unilaterally declare their Exclusive Economic Zones. Moreover, gas findings in Egypt, Israel and Cyprus around the 2010s have served as stimuli for regional cooperation. Joint infrastructural schemes, in the form of the proposed EastMed gas pipeline and Cypriot-Egypt gas links, have dominated the agenda with an eye to exploit the economic potential of these discoveries while supplying the lucrative EU market. Such schemes aimed to exclude Turkey from any role in energy transit and weaken its geopolitical leverage. While the controversy in the region adopted an energy-relevant discourse and undertone, however, it has been the quest for sovereignty, rather than exploration rights on their own merit that motivated actors’ foreign policies, as affirmation of exploration rights fortified their sovereignty claims (Proedrou, 2019).

Crucially, this geographical setting, upon which regional politics plays out, is increasingly exposed to change with the advent of the global energy transition. A new political geography is created with the global energy transition raising the importance of land and maritime zones for the exploitation of different forms of clean energy. For now, such challenges accompany, rather than displace, diachronic bones of contention around oil and gas geopolitics and are captured by the literature on new (or clean) energy geopolitics (or geopolitics of renewables).

Clean energy geopolitics’ starting point is the geology and resource endowment relevant for the generation of clean energy, and its focal point of study is the competitive dynamics unleashed by the quest for (access to) resources, trade routes and flows of finance and technology relevant to clean energy commodities (Scholten, 2023). As the global energy transition slowly takes the focus away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy sources and systems, new opportunities for cooperation open up and new triggers for conflict are created. This bifurcated geopolitics of renewables is manifested, on the positive side, in the recent agreement for an Egypt-Greece Electricity Interconnector. Electricity (and hydrogen) trade diplomacy will likely substitute gas diplomacy in line with the need for net zero in the following decades. The potential of eastern Mediterranean states to produce green (clean) hydrogen and reap the benefits of an emerging lucrative market vector will both follow the patterns of established alliances to avoid security risks and double down on geopolitical leverage and premiums, as well as redraw the energy map.

At the same time it will prime disputes over land and maritime zones. This is because the generation of clean energy calls for ample land. Moreover, some regions constitute ideal production sites as they can generate clean energy in very cost-efficient ways. Such “prime real estate” can also become a bone of contention, especially in already contested territory (Hache, 2018). Areas where potentially significant, critical material resources (essential for clean energy equipment) are to be found will also likely raise territorial challenges, especially if they are already enlisted as bilateral differences. Furthermore, offshore wind has become a niche clean energy sector; maritime zones in this context become more significant due to their energy and economic potential. Add to this the as of yet underdeveloped tidal and wave energy generation potential, and it becomes easily comprehensible that maritime zones’ significance is likely to be elevated in the near future. As electricity and hydrogen pipelines will need to cross territorial waters, moreover, the demarcation of maritime zones is crucial for the construction of energy infrastructure that will facilitate clean energy trade. 

Enter Climate Geopolitics

Finally, climate change alters the geographical context within which international relations play out, reshuffling arguments around sovereignty and Exclusive Economic Zones. Competing states build their arguments around historical, military, population and geographical criteria. Geographical criteria will be increasingly prone to further manipulation in line with changes in the geographical setting brought about by climate change, which brings us to climate geopolitics. Two examples will bring the point home. Maritime and Exclusive Economic Zones have the coastline as their starting point. Climate change renders the erosion of land and the retracting of coastlines a very likely, if not certain, scenario (Trombetta, 2023). Will maritime zones be retracted accordingly, or will states accept today’s coastlines as reference points for the future as well?

In a more dramatic tone, the possibility that islands will come under water is bound to reshuffle the argumentation around maritime zones, tying in with the severe controversy already in place around the conditions under and the extent to which islands are entitled to their own maritime zones. The Climate Vulnerable Forum has been the only institution to address this issue up to now, arguing that the current material/ geographical context should be the basis and reference point for maritime zone-related settlements in future disputes. Such near future problems are not yet addressed in the eastern Mediterranean context but are very likely to further shake the region’s already conflictive geopolitical landscape. 

Conclusion

In all, the eastern Mediterranean region remains embroiled in a set of disputes. These disputes, while lying at the heart of littoral states’ sovereignty and quest for survival, are also significantly entangled with energy affairs and climate issues. In this article, I demonstrated how oil and gas geopolitics, in the form of incompatible and overlapping demands on exploration rights and maritime zones through which energy trade infrastructure will pass, is anticipated to give its place to clean energy and climate geopolitics. More specifically, I pointed at the importance of land and maritime zones for the establishment of clean energy generation sites and trade infrastructure and for the mining of critical materials. At the same time, geographical alterations brought about by climate change are bound to reshuffle contestation over maritime boundaries, making diplomatic affairs even murkier.

Clean energy geopolitics has the potential to herald several shared benefits in the form of joint clean energy exploration schemes and regional electricity networks that can serve as facilitators to the building of security communities. The significant potential that lies therein, however, together with the biggest common challenge of all, climate change, which should foster rapprochement and cooperation, can only be tapped if littoral states move beyond historical animosities and conflictive mindsets and envisage a different, cooperative, and peaceful future.



References

Hache, E. “Do renewable energies improve energy security in the long run?” In International Economics, vol. 156: 127-135, 2018.

Proedrou, F. Energy policy and security under climate change. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2018.

Proedrou, F. “A geopolitical account of the Eastern Mediterranean conundrum: sovereignty, balance of power and energy security considerations.” In Cambridge Review of International Affairs, vol. 36, n. 5: 679-696, 2021.

Scholten, D. “Introduction: the geopolitics of the energy transition.” Handbook on the Geopolitics of the Energy Transition. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2023. 

Trombetta, M. J. Introduction: linking climate change and security. In M. J. Trombetta (Ed.). The Handbook on Climate Change and International Security. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2023.

Tziarras, Z. “International competition and cooperation in the new eastern Mediterranean.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies, 2021.

Recommended Bibliography

Christofis, N. and Deriziotis, A. (Eds.). A century of Greek–Turkish relations. A Handbook. London: Transnational Press London, 2024

Heraclides, A. The Greek-Turkish conflict in the Aegean. New perspectives on South-East Europe Series. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Kutlay, M. and Önis, Z. “Turkish foreign policy in a post-western order: strategic autonomy or new forms of dependence?” In International Affairs, vol 97, n. 4: 1085-1104, 2021.

Stergious, A. “Eastern Mediterranean energy geopolitics revisited: green economy instead of conflict.” In Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, vol. 25, n. 4: 604-625, 2023.

Tanchum, M. “The geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean crisis: a regional system perspective on the Mediterranean’s New Great Game.” In Eastern Mediterranean in Unchartered Waters: Perspectives on Emerging Geopolitical Realities, n. 13, 2021.


Header photo:
Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is pictured in the eastern Mediterranean See off Cyprus (REUTERS/Murad Sezer).