by Endy Zemenides
In 1992, the Clinton campaign adopted the tagline “It’s the economy, stupid” to identify the candidate’s signature issue. The controversy over the US “non-paper” on the EastMed pipeline and the series of public relations fiascos and laughable explanations that followed make for a scenario that one might expect to see in HBO’s political comedy “Veep,” but certainly not in the documentary about Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, “War Room.” Still, if you focus on what is most important in this tragicomedy of diplomacy, you’ll discover “it’s not the pipeline, stupid.”
The EastMed pipeline made for great photo opportunities and grand dreams about energy diplomacy. But despite several years of feasibility studies and trilateral pronouncements, the pipeline has yet to be judged commercially viable, no country or company has committed to paying for it, and we don’t know whether the ideal customers for Eastern Mediterranean gas lie at end of a pipeline that terminates in Italy rather than going directly to countries in the Balkans or on to Asian customers.
Those who argue that EastMed is central to regional energy diplomacy need to address a timeline problem. Israeli gas is already flowing from one field. Gas from Cyprus’ Aphrodite field and additional reserves in Israel’s Leviathan field are set to come to market soon. Are the advocates for the pipeline proposing that this gas wait for the development of a pipeline that is not certain (or maybe not even likely)? If alternative methods of bringing this gas to market can be developed in the meantime, what do we do with that infrastructure?
The fact that the US State Department identified the EuroAsia Interconnector, the EuroAfrica Interconnector, the Alexandroupoli FSRU, the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector, and the Greece-North Macedonia Interconnector as projects that it supports, that are commercially viable, and can be completed in the near future help all stakeholders to focus on how quickly Eastern Mediterranean energy resources can be brought online. We can now focus on what is real – not just imagined.
It is not only those who lament the end of the EastMed pipeline who need to answer questions; those responsible for the non-paper and parts of the US response need to own up to this unmitigated disaster.
Here is the good news: Eastern Mediterranean energy diplomacy began before the EastMed pipeline became all the rage (and without Turkey in the picture); it will continue even without the pipeline (and certainly without this Turkey).
Now that we’ve dispensed with the pipeline, there are a few important lessons to be learned here.
There is a need to move the “3+1” to a much higher political level. The fact that there is a debate over whether to classify what was reduced to writing and circulated to multiple governments as a non-paper, “talking points” or a “message” is comical. That there is contradictory information from the “3” vs the “1” as to whether there were consultations before this non-paper was issued is diplomatically awkward to say the least. The State Department’s insistence that the “leak” of the document was the problem and deployment of lower-level officials to do damage control demonstrates its alarming failure to grasp the unintended political firestorm that has ensued.
The fix requires something that would have prevented the controversy in the first place – Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s direct engagement in the 3+1. There would be no debate as to whether there were consultations had Secretary Blinken raised this issue with his Greek, Cypriot and Israeli counterparts. A proper change in policy would have come with buy-in from allies and partners, consultations with Congress (especially with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez), and in compliance with the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act. Without Secretary Blinken’s involvement, none of this happened.
Secretary Blinken has said the right things about the 3+1 in calls and in separate meetings with the Greek, Cypriot and Israeli foreign ministers, and the State Department has taken significant steps to institutionalize technical cooperation within the 3+1. Still, after the high level of engagement during the Trump administration (especially that of Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), it is puzzling that the State Department doesn’t recognize the problem of keeping Blinken on the sidelines of this diplomatic initiative.
It is time for Secretary Blinken to meet Foreign Ministers Nikos Dendias, Ioannis Kasoulides and Yair Lapid in the region and bolster flagging US credibility when it comes to the 3+1.
The State Department has to stop trying to appease Turkey. The damage control effort has included the insistence that Ankara’s desires did not factor into the State Department’s thinking. Even if we were to suspend belief and ignore the references to the Nautical Geo research vessel and regional tensions in the non-paper or the reports (which remain unrefuted by the State Department) that the document was also presented to Ankara, there has been a troubling trend of certain officials at State constantly probing for openings for Turkish participation in Eastern Mediterranean diplomatic initiatives.
Turkey continues to make every State Department official who tries this look bad. A “rules-based international order” – the very kind of order that President Joe Biden himself has set as his goal – is being established in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey doesn’t accept any of these rules – not the Law of the Sea, not the exclusive economic zones that were legally delineated etc.
Turkey is not looking to participate in Eastern Mediterranean initiatives, it wants to dominate them. Ankara’s goal is not one of cooperation but of regional primacy if not hegemony. It is Turkey’s behavior that has led to a balancing coalition that includes not only Greece, Cyprus and Israel, but Egypt and features support from France and others. The problem for Ankara is that this balancing coalition (unlike balancing coalitions in the South China Sea for example) now features a much larger total population, more dynamic and innovative economies, more than capable militaries, and far more diplomatic leverage.
Moreover, Turkey’s priorities are contrary to the priorities the US laid out in the non-paper, in two State Department statements and in interviews granted by Amos Hochstein following the controversy. Turkish officials are telling anyone that will listen that they also oppose the interconnectors, which they declare “not viable” – directly contradicting State. President Erdogan declared that East Med gas is going nowhere without Turkey. Renewable energy goals in the region are hampered by the casus belli Turkey maintains against Greece in the Aegean – preventing for example wind turbines being developed outside of a 6-mile radius around Greek islands (an absurd limitation that would seriously and negatively affect Greek tourism if complied with).
US officials recognize that the East Med Gas Forum has the potential to evolve and to be as significant as the European Coal and Steel Community. For Turkey to be part of that, it has to play the role of Germany of the 1950s instead of the Eastern Mediterranean’s version of the revisionist Germany of World War II. State Department officials openly muse about Turkey the day after Erdogan yet keep trying to give Erdogan a place at the table. It is Turkey’s behavior that has to change, not simply the manner in which it makes its demands.
This is certainly an inauspicious start to the year on the 3+1. Fortunately, it is only January and there is an obvious course correction: It is time for Secretary Blinken to get directly involved.
Endy Zemenides is executive director at the Hellenic American Leadership Council.