The relationship between the EU and Turkey has been rather icy for the past few years. Accession talks between the European Union (EU) and Turkey had been practically frozen until last November. Turkey has been prompted to reconsider its relations with the EU, in the wake of the turmoil in the Middle East.
Turkish domestic political upheaval and enlargement fatigue within the EU dim prospects for the accession negotiations accelerating anytime soon. An area where the partners could, however, greatly benefit from closer cooperation – in the meantime – is energy security.
Turkey’s total primary energy consumption has more than doubled over the last two decades as a result of its exceptional economic performance, and today the country is one of the fastest-growing energy markets in the world. It is heavily dependent on external hydrocarbon supplies in order to meet its growing demand as a result of the limited indigenous conventional fossil fuel resources available under its soil.
But thanks to its fortunate position – surrounded by producing countries to its north, east and south – and to its pivotal regional role, Turkey has been able to implement a rather successful energy policy, which has secured significant volumes of hydrocarbons and attracted huge investments for the realization of ambitious energy transportation projects.
Turkey has been able to implement a rather successful energy policy, which has secured significant volumes of hydrocarbons and attracted huge investments for the realization of ambitious energy transportation projects.
Turkey’s primary strategic interest is to further diversify access to gas sources in order to reduce prices and satisfy its skyrocketing gas demand, as the gas bill still makes up a large chunk of Turkey’s excessively high current account deficit.
At the same time, as repeatedly stressed by government officials and policy-makers, contributing to Europe’s energy security is also a strategic objective. The two sides would indeed benefit handsomely from enhanced energy cooperation. The EU would gain a reliable alternative supply route to further diversify its imports from Russia. Turkey, as a hub, would benefit from transit fees and other energy-generated revenues. As additional supplies of gas may become available for export over the next five to 10 years in the wider region, Turkey is the natural route via which these could be shipped to Europe.
Underlying geopolitical frictions
Recent major gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean (offshore Israel and Cyprus) may be sourced to supply the Turkish market and transported beyond to Europe, should the underlying geopolitical frictions be sorted out. That seems like a tall order, as it will require the resolution of the decades’ old Cyprus conflict as well as the reestablishment of the trust and strategic partnership between Israel and Turkey. Yet with European and US diplomatic engagement it might as well act as a stabilising factor in a volatile region.
The rapprochement between the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq (KRG) and Turkey in recent years has opened up the option of gas supplies from Northern Iraq. The KRG could play a large part in supplying Turkey with natural gas, and, given its huge gas reserves, it could also become a supplier of Europe in the long run, should the prevalent disputes between Erbil and Baghdad over hydrocarbon development and export strategy as well as revenue sharing be sorted out. Yet again, a more proactive EU approach is required to complement US efforts to reach a resolution.
It is worth recalling that the original Nabucco concept, conceived in 2002, planned on shipping Iranian gas to Europe. As the nuclear stand-off with Iran intensified, the option of Iranian gas for Europe became a no-go. In the context of a potential resolution of the nuclear issue, Iran may well become an exporter of gas to Europe via Turkey towards the second half of the decade, though that is also a function of fundamental reform in the Iranian hydrocarbon sector.
Mutual strategic interests
A long sought-after source of European gas supply diversification is Central Asia, primarily Turkmenistan, but also Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. China’s emerging pre-eminence in the region, and the stall in the realisation of the Trans-Caspian Pipeline will likely preclude supplies to Europe for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, some gas from offshore Turkmenistan might make it to Europe should the completion of a Southern Gas Corridor with expanded capacities change the calculus in both Baku and Ashgabat.
Turkey’s political and economic woes, heavy dependence on gas imports and exposure to high gas prices has weakened its ability effectively to leverage its role as gas transit hub with the EU and regional suppliers. Meanwhile the EU’s reluctance to proceed with the energy chapter of the accession negotiations reduced its ability to drive the development of the Southern Gas Corridor and to influence Turkey’s stance.
Both Brussels and Ankara should now be more strategic and flexible when discussing energy. Ankara should recognise that acceding to the European Energy Community and thus adopting the energy acquis is to the benefit of Turkey and will act as a safeguard against regional suppliers abusing their dominant positions, without actually undermining Turkey’s negotiating positions with Brussels on eventual EU membership.
Meanwhile, EU member states that are blocking the energy chapter, and Cyprus in particular, should realise that getting Turkey to adopt EU regulations is in their strategic interest too.
The obstacles to an enhanced EU-Turkish energy cooperation are numerous. Yet Turkey is key to gas supply diversification of the entire European Union. It would be a huge mistake to stall energy cooperation any further.
David Koranyi is Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Washington.
Nicolo Sartori is Researcher in the Security and Defence Department at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), Rome.