The U.S. scuppers the EastMed gas plan but Turkey’s alternative remains a pipedream

The United States has finally bitten the bullet and withdrawn support for the EastMed pipeline, a project supported by Greece, Cyprus, and Israel to bring natural gas to Europe.

In a statement on Jan. 10, the U.S. State Department acknowledged the urgent need to enhance European energy security, but framed the decision as part of the move away from carbon-intensive projects and towards cleaner energy alternatives. Washington will instead focus on electricity interconnectors "that can support both gas and renewable energy sources", It said.

The sharp reversal on the pipeline, which was given vocal support in 2020 by the Trump administration, is unsurprising given U.S. President Joe Biden’s stated commitment to tackling climate change. But for the countries involved, it has been seen by some as the United States turning its back on a blossoming partnership that could have served its own interests.

The same was not true of Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a staunch opponent of the project, could hardly contain his delight. At a press conference on Jan 18., he predicted the pipeline would now never be built, attributing faltering U.S. support to the alleged costs of excluding Turkey from the proposal.   

“This business cannot be done without Turkey. Because if (gas) will be transferred to Europe from here, it will only happen through Turkey,” he told reporters.

Turkey sought to block the EastMed pipeline from the start, accusing Greece, Cyprus and Israel of nefarious political motives. To do so, Ankara has staked an increasingly assertive claim to a broadly defined exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean that overlaps with the maritime borders of Greece and Cyprus.

Ankara’s bellicose stance sparked fears the dispute could escalate into military clashes in the summer of 2020, spurring U.S. and European Union support for Greece and Cyprus, while leaving Turkey ever more isolated.  

Erdoğan may now feel vindicated, but it is unclear how much credit he can claim for the pipeline’s demise.

The EastMed proposal has long been dogged by questions about its feasibility. Laying 1,900-kilometers of pipeline under the Mediterranean Sea was always likely to be challenging and expensive, with a projected spend of close to $7 billion. Italy withdrew from the project in January 2020 citing the costs involved.  

Changes to the European energy market have also cast doubt over the pipeline’s viability.

“Ten years ago… Europe was still determined to carry on burning gas,” Charles Ellinas, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, told Ahval News. Since then, however, the EU has shifted strongly in favour of renewables. In July, the bloc adopted the “Fit for 55” plan, committing to a 55 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.

“Fit for 55 cannot be achieved while burning the same amount of gas as now," Ellinas said. "It has in effect spelt the decline and eventual end of gas in Europe,”

Given these factors, the United States was simply stating the obvious in its “timely” decision to drop support for the EastMed pipeline, he added.

However, the pipeline was never solely intended as a commercial venture. It was also a geopolitical project, as Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades voiced in January 20202 when he told Greece’s ERT news network that the pipeline was “a response to Turkish challenges in the area”.

In the aftermath of the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Greek press has accused Washington of seeking to appease Ankara at Athens’ expense. An article in the Greek City Times suggested the move gave credence to the idea that the United States was an unreliable ally.

Despite this outcry, the damage between Athens and Washington is likely to be limited as Greece instead pushes forward with alternative pipeline plans in cooperation with Egypt.

Meanwhile, Turkey has floated the possibility of reviving plans with Israel to transport gas to Europe overground, potentially cutting costs. A Turkish-Israeli pipeline was considered in 2016 but made little progress amid Erdoğan’s embrace of the Hamas militant group and his sharp denunciations of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Turkey began new overtures towards Israel in late 2020, part of a wider reset with U.S. allies across the region, and high-level contact has since resumed between the two countries for the first time in nearly a decade, raising prospects for renewed cooperation.  

However, commenting on reports that Israeli President Isaac Herzog could soon visit Turkey, diplomatic sources told the Jerusalem Post said that any rapprochement would not come at the expense of Greece and Cyprus.

Ellinas of the Atlantic Council also expressed scepticism at the possibility of a Turkish-Israeli solution, saying it was “far-fetched”.

Even in the unlikely event that Tel Avia agreed to the proposal, it would still face many of the same challenges that ended the prospects for the EastMed pipeline, he added. “It’s not commercially viable.”

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