The Italian multinational energy group ENI in February 2018 withdraw its research ship Saipem from the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the face of threats from Turkey. The following year, on October 18, 2019 (and while the then Italian government was still trying to figure out exactly what had happened), the financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore published an interview with ENI Group CEO Claudio De Scalzi.
Asked about the Turkish provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean, de Scalzi said: “We are worried, as is always the case when we speak of warships. However, we have reached an agreement with Cyprus and we will respect it. The Eastern Mediterranean is a region with huge energy reserves: gas for 8-10 billion cubic meters, not counting Libya. The Eastern Mediterranean is a very important region for the whole of Europe and the whole world. We will contribute to the work to proceed in peace, without wars.”
It was a statement that indirectly confirmed the information that ENI was exerting great pressure on the Italian government, in order to undertake the protection of the research activity in the Cypriot sea plots. Pressures that, as we know, have remained fruitless, not only because of outdated but still dominant ideologies (“to keep Turkey tied to the West”) in the leadership of the Italian armed forces and in part of the diplomatic service.
Di Maio’s incompetence
The main reason that the pressures of ENI remained without result was due to the insurmountable difficulty shown in understanding the problem by the then Minister of Energy, Luigi Di Maio. To understand the depth of the amateurism that prevailed in that ministry at that time, suffice it to say that Di Maio and his (also ignorant) close associates had stubbornly refused any cooperation with Foreign Minister Enzo Moaver on the subject.
Things seem to have changed with the landing of the Turks in Libya and the signing of the so-called “agreement” between Turkey and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood government based in Tripoli to steal Greece’s maritime space between themselves.
While the Italian government has finally been informed of where Cyprus is falling and declares (with a thousand and two hesitations and doubts) it is willing to align with EU guidelines, the ENI group seems to have begun a review of its stance on Turkish expansionist aspirations.
In fact, there was a rumor in Italy that the ENI had contacted Turkish authorities seeking something like “double licensing” for the “Turkish Cypriot EEZ”. Eventually the attempt is said to have failed in the face of the Turkish demand to cancel any agreement with the Republic of Cyprus. It is information that has never been confirmed and is mentioned with every reservation.
“Everyone loses with EastMed”
Now the concerns of the Italian state group are presented in an article authored by Lapo Pistelli, head of international relations of the ENI group and a close associate of the CEO. The article was just published in a special article on the Turkish foreign policy of the monthly geopolitical magazine Limes, entitled “Almost everyone loses in the EastMed match”. The columnist looks at the problem from an energy perspective.
He stressed that the Eastern Mediterranean is “one of the most promising regions of the last decade” as it is estimated that it is home to 2% of the world’s gas reserves. In the area where the EastMed pipeline is planned to be expanded, according to the columnist, only two countries are demographically “heavyweight players“: Egypt and Turkey. Everyone else, including Israel, is described as “small to medium-sized.“
Regarding the East Med Forum (East Med Gas Forum), he explains that there was an Israeli veto on Lebanon’s participation and an Egyptian veto on Turkey’s participation, while France and the United States expressed a “strong will” for Ankara to join as observers. Turkey, according to the columnist, is theoretically the ideal gas customer for the region.
At the moment, its energy-intensive industry is supplied by Russia, but the contracts, which expire this year and 2021, in some cases provide for the purchase of Russian gas “two and a half times more expensive than its price in the short-term sales market,” thus supplying a large energy dependence and very high costs.
“Both in order to gain strategic depth further south,” the article continues, “and to reduce the burden of Russian gas by meeting its needs in a more economical way, it made sense for Ankara to start a process of co-operation with other East Mediterranean countries.”
With no concrete progress on the Cyprus issue or in relations with Egypt, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chose to start an escalation, which in practice halved the potential of the energy hub and mortgaged some infrastructure. which was in the study phase.”
References to “Northern Cyprus”
The first of these escalation moves was that it “prevented international companies (including ENI) from conducting research on the claimed plots from Northern Cyprus”. The columnist points out that during the negotiations in Crans-Montana “there was no interference.” Then “Turkey expanded the scope of its activities, repeatedly conducting its own research within the Cypriot EEZ.”
The article alludes to the occupation of Cyprus as “Northern Cyprus”, as if it were a separate political entity, in an apparent attempt by Pistelli to appear “neutral” and to prevent Turkish protests. The term international law is absent from the article, while the Convention on the Law of the Sea is referred only indirectly: “Ankara interprets international law of the Sea in a geopolitical way and considers that the islands, in some cases, are not automatically entitled to EEZs.“
At this point the columnist adds in parentheses that the Turkish interpretation concerns both the EEZ of Cyprus and the “danger of limited Turkish navigation in the Aegean, where there are so many Greek islands.”
He concludes that, contrary to what the Law of the Sea stipulates, Turkey “invokes the existence of its own continental shelf, which it claims makes it a border country with Egypt and Libya.”
The agreement between Tripoli and Ankara, which “includes the Greek mainland and the islands of Crete, Kassos, Karpathos and Rhodes”, makes “even more problematic the possibility of a gas pipeline connecting Israeli fields with Greece and Europe”. The country that “suffers the most” is Cyprus, whose “Aphrodite” deposit can hardly be connected to the industrial facilities in Egypt.
The “supremacy” of Turkey
Europe’s stance is openly criticized, as it is considered “hesitant” or “indifferent” at a time when Germany “softened its tone” and Greece “for the first time said it was ready to start a dialogue with Ankara on the issue of maritime borders, while showing renewed activity in defining the EEZ with neighboring countries.”
The columnist concludes that “Turkey’s aggressive stance, no matter how reprehensible, clearly seems to be working.”
In fact, to prove it, he speaks of a “US turn”: “Turkey’s dominance on the ground, NATO’s second military force, made the State Department consider how much interest it would be to have the majority shareholder in the theater as an ally of Libya and that of Syria, mainly in confrontations with Russia.” Surprisingly, Pistelli does not seem well informed about the debate in the US political leadership about Turkey.
In fact, he considers it a given that the intention for “political-military support to Cyprus” was abandoned , in order to be refuted almost immediately with the partial lifting of the American arms embargo on Cyprus. It is not ruled out that the columnist wanted to present the “pro-Turkish turn” of the USA as a given, in order to stimulate the sensitivity that the Italian leadership traditionally shows for what is happening across the Atlantic.
The “new protagonist”
Europe is also criticized in relation to Libya, a country in which we recall that until the overthrow of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi, ENI had almost a monopoly on the exploitation of energy resources. A “recent example of Europe’s lack of enforcement capacity” cited in the article is the inability of the Greek frigate “Spetsai” to conduct an investigation, in the context of Operation Irini, on the Turkish ship “probably carrying weapons” to Libya.
The article concludes that Libya “has deviated from the orbit of Italy and Europe.” In addition, it raises the issue of “confronting the new protagonist and his energy ambitions, which certainly extend over a much longer period of time than the results we could have achieved in the Eastern Mediterranean.” The “new protagonist”, of course, is Turkey.
This particular issue of Limes magazine also publishes an interview with Turkish Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, “father” of the “Blue Homeland” doctrine. Suffice it to note that the Italian journalist did not find anything strange or unacceptable in the admiral’s delusions. Finally, it is noteworthy that the magazine’s tribute does not publish any text that mentions the perspective of Greece or Cyprus.
Dimitris Deliolanis has been Greek state-owned ERT’s correspondent in Rome for 35 years.