Creciente tensión entre Turquía y Grecia por reservas de gas en el Mediterráneo

Growing tension between Turkey and Greece over Mediterranean gas reserves


22 | 03 | 2023


The dispute over the delimitation of the exclusive economic zones hinders the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons and increases confrontation.

In the picture

Turkish drillship Fatih, on one of its deployments in the Eastern Mediterranean [TPAO].

The historical tension between Greece and Turkey has taken on a new dimension in recent years over the control of energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition to the traditional causes of friction between the two countries, there is now a dispute over the delimitation of their maritime borders in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean, since, among other things, exploration and exploitation rights for hydrocarbons located in these areas depend on it, and with them, naturally, important economic benefits. 

The eastern Mediterranean Sea is bordered by the coasts of Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. The fact that the region is dotted with numerous islands of different entities, belonging to several of these countries, only complicates the delimitation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which in turn results in an invitation to friction and conflict.

Turkey and Greece, in particular, have competing ambitions for gas reserves and are not at agreement over who has the right to sovereignty or exploitation of the resources located in the central Eastern Mediterranean, as both argue that these areas belong to their respective continental shelves. This overlap makes it difficult to award the rights to explore and exploit hydrocarbon resources in the region. The status is further complicated by the lack of a agreement between Greece and Turkey on the delimitation of their respective EEZs in the Aegean Sea.

On the other hand, Greece and Cyprus have announced the creation of a joint EEZ to explore and exploit the resources present there. Unsurprisingly, this has angered Turkey, which considers that this decision affects its interests and its right to benefit from such economic activity.

Partly in reaction to this Greek Cypriot move, in November 2019, Ankara signed a agreement with the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) to create an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between Turkey's southern coast and the North African country's northeastern coast. The advertisement of the agreement was met with a general rejection from the region; Egypt called it illegal and Greece called it ridiculous because it ignores the Greek island of Crete, located between the two countries.

Without having reached agreement any cooperation or sharing, Turkey and Libya have initiated explorations in the area in search of hydrocarbons, and have signed agreements with international companies for the exploitation of the resources that may eventually be located.

In the picture

Map with conflicting delimitations of Exclusive Economic Zone/Continental Shelf areas. Blue: areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus; Red: areas claimed by Turkey. Section A-B: claimed delimitation between Turkey and Libya according to the 2019 agreement . Section C-D: Delimitation agreed between Greece and Egypt as per the 2020 agreement .

Some programs of study estimate that off the coasts of Cyprus, Israel, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon there are reserves of more than 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil. The American business Exxon-Mobil, the Italian Eni and the French Total have located gas fields off the coast of Cyprus, which has inevitably fueled tensions between Greeks and Turks.

The status has recently been aggravated by the belligerent attitude of Turkey, which has intensified its prospecting activities and sent exploration vessels to the region, further contributing to the state of tension between the two countries, and raising concerns about the possibility of a military confrontation in the region between two NATO military allies. In 2020, tension escalated further when Turkey began conducting drilling in the Aegean Sea, in waters considered by Greece to be part of its Exclusive Economic Zone.

In August 2021, Turkey sent a gas exploration vessel into the disputed waters between Greece and Turkey. Greece and other EU countries denounced this action as a violation of international law and demanded that Turkey withdraw the vessel. However, Turkey maintained its position and argued that it was carrying out legitimate activities on its own continental shelf. In October of the same year, Turkey rectified, announced the temporary suspension of its gas exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and committed to a dialogue with Greece on this subject. This gesture, however, did not resolve the dispute in any way final, so that tension remains high between the two countries.

At the beginning of 2023, the Libyan Government of National Unity temporarily suspended the controversial agreement hydrocarbon deal with Turkey. Without claiming a direct link, the Libyan suspension can be interpreted as related to a change in Libya's position, as it followed a recent statement by the GUN Minister of Oil and Gas, Mohammed Oun, in which he saidadvertisement by the GUN Minister of Oil and Gas, Mohammed Oun, in which he expressed his desire to "find amicable solutions" with Greece, Egypt and Cyprus on "the demarcation of maritime borders". 

The European Union has not remained aloof from this issue. In September 2021, it held a summit at which it addressed the issue of the tension between Turkey and Greece, and at which it reiterated its commitment to defend the interests of its member states, including Greece and Cyprus, calling on Turkey to cease its activities in the disputed waters. In addition, it was agreed that the economic sanctions imposed on Turkey for its gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean would be maintained.

Despite the efforts of the European Union and other international actors to resolve the dispute, a satisfactory agreement has so far not been achieved. The lack of a clear legal framework for the delimitation of maritime borders and the exploitation of hydrocarbon resources in the region has complicated the status and increased tension between the two countries.

The financial aid that Greece has offered Turkey in the aftermath of the February 6 earthquakes could serve to ease tension between the two neighbors in their dispute over control of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, although past experience and the proximity of both Greek and Turkish elections suggest that this détente may be temporary.

A scenario in which a peaceful solution to the conflict is reached would be the most favorable for regional stability. The exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean is a matter of economic and strategic interest for many countries in the region, so it is important that a consensual solution be reached to avoid the escalation of a conflict that could have serious consequences for regional security and stability.

A change of government in Turkey could facilitate greater dialogue and cooperation, although nothing is certain. International mediation may be necessary to reach a solution. The international community, including the European Union and NATO, has expressed concern about the dispute between Greece and Turkey and has urged both sides to reach a peaceful agreement . If necessary, the Alliance should be ready to mediate in the conflict and help both sides find a fair and equitable solution that avoids an escalation that would reproduce in the Eastern Mediterranean a status similar to the one in Ukraine.