Developments in the Eastern Mediterranean involving natural gas hold many benefits for the region’s countries including Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and the European Union in general as long as they serve common interests instead of causing tensions. Not just those concerning gas, but all energy projects in the Mediterranean have the potential to strengthen economic and political ties and alleviate security concerns. Unfortunately, there are ongoing disputes in the region concerning territorial waters and the continental shelf. In light of the above, there is an urgent need for common ground to be reached on mutual interests to resolve the existing conflicts. Without a proper solution, gas exploration work in the disputed areas will only lead to further problems. All sides may have their own justifications for their actions, but there is a need to adopt a new perspective to resolve problems.
Turkey and the EU share many of the same energy challenges. Both are lacking in domestic fossil fuel resources and are therefore reliant on imports for a significant portion of their energy needs. Natural gas poses the most pressing issue as Turkey and the EU remain heavily dependent on a single supplier, Russia. In 2016, Turkey imported 24.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) or 52.94 percent of its natural gas from Russia. The EU, by contrast, receives 39.5 percent of its gas imports from Russia, which – while lower than Turkey – conceals the fact that many EU countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, rely on Russia for close to 100 percent of their natural gas needs. Dependency on a single or few suppliers increases the risk of political and technical disruptions and decreases importers’ leverage.
Turkey and the EU are well positioned to take advantage of the boom in liquefied natural gas (LNG) trade partly caused by the US shale revolution. Ongoing projects will increase the US’s LNG export capacity from 14 bcm to 90 bcm by 2020. US LNG, along with projects which will increase the intra-connection of EU gas markets and allow the further penetration of LNG, such as the North-South Corridor and Three Seas Initiative, will give the EU more flexibility and diversification. Turkey recently acquired its second floating storage regasification unit to increase its import capacity.
Turkey-EU energy cooperation has traditionally been viewed through the lens of natural gas and the potential role Turkey can play as a bridge for Middle East and Caspian resources. While important, this misses the bigger picture of overall dependence on energy imports. Indeed, energy imports made up around 19 percent and 10 percent respectively of Turkey and the EU’s total imports in 2016, creating, in addition to strategic vulnerabilities, a large economic burden.
Renewable energy presents a great opportunity to find the required common ground for regional countries, while offering a path to decrease dependency on energy imports. Renewable energy allows companies to capitalize on their experience and technology, while giving the EU the opportunity to demonstrate its leadership in the push to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in a market with a fast-growing demand for energy.
The common energy challenges and existing geopolitical problems should be seen as opportunities to enhance cooperation. Indeed, energy is one of the few areas where Turkey and the EU have continued their cooperation without interruption despite the political tensions, which is a testament to the strong mutual interests.
Defne Sadiklar Arslan is the Atlantic Council’s Turkey representative.