The Legal Issues Regarding Drilling Off the Northeast Coast of Cyprus

The Legal Issues Regarding Drilling Off the Northeast Coast of Cyprus

[Todd Carney is a student at Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He has also worked in digital media in New York City and Washington D.C.]

Last July, after months of tension, the EU punished Turkey for illegally drilling for gas off the coast of Cyrpus. The penalty had the EU withdraw $164 million in foreign aid to Turkey and suspend contact between high-level EU officials and Turkish leaders. Prior to this decision, the EU leaders had repeatedly warned Turkey that it was committing an illegal action by drilling in an area that Cyprus had sole domain over. Turkey had repeatedly responded that Cyprus did not have jurisdiction over the waters because the disputed area was under the jurisdiction of the country of the Turkish Republican of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Turkey is the only nation in the world that has recognized the TRNC as a state. Though this conflict may appear to solely involve Turkey and Cyprus, further analysis shows that the disputes raises several international legal issues that entangle the West as a whole.

Disputed Territory

The dispute over Cyprus goes back over 50 years. Cyprus was a British colony until 1960, when Cyprus gained independence. At that point, Cyprus’s inhabitants were primarily of either Greek or Turkish descent. The Greek and Turkish Cypriots were supposed to jointly govern Cyprus, but they remained in conflict over the next few years. As a result, in 1964, the Greek Cypriots formed a government without the Turkish Cypriots.

In 1974, Greece backed a coup against the government of Cyprus because Greece wanted a government that would back Cyprus becoming apart of Greece. Turkey intervened against the coup and occupied the northern third of Cyprus, where most of the Turkish Cypriots resided. When the coup failed, Turkey refused to leave and installed a separate government that declared the occupied region to be the “Turkish Federated State of Cyprus” (TFSC).

After 1974, the official government of Cyprus repeatedly tried to hold talks with the government of the TFSC. In 1983, the TFSC suspended talks and proclaimed itself to be the nation the TRNC. The United Nations (UN) Security Council immediately condemned the move and called on all foreign troops to leave Cyprus.

Since then, there have been a series of talks aimed at reunification of Cyprus. Only Turkey has recognized the TRNC and the TRNC is not considered a state under international law.

Current Conflict

In 2011, Cyprus discovered oil and gas fields off its northeast coast. In the years to follow Cyprus made deals with several international energy companies to drill in the area. In February 2018, Turkish warships blocked ENI, an Italian energy company that Cyprus had made a deal with to drill, from accessing the region. Turkey defended its move by arguing that the TRNC had a right to the energy as well, so Cyprus could not unilaterally grant drilling access to the region. EU officials condemned the move, but did not offer any actions beyond that.

Cyprus objected to Turkey’s claim and argued that the region was Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which meant Cyprus had an exclusive right to develop the region as it saw fit. Turkey continued to block companies from drilling. Turkey stood down against Exxon Mobil when Exxon Mobil arrived with a United States (US) Naval warship escort.

Last May, Turkey declared it did not “recognize the unilateral and illegitimate exclusive economic zone claims of the Greek Cypriots,” and that it would pursue drilling in the region. Turkey deployed ships to drill that were escorted by Turkish Naval warships to the region. In response, Cyprus worked behind the scenes to convince the EU to intervene on the issue by threatening to veto any new members to EU if EU leaders did not take a firmer stance against Turkey. Cyprus’s stance made EU leaders threaten to enact sanctions against Turkey if it continued to attempt to drill in the region.

Despite this threat from the EU, in July Turkey moved a second ship to the region and vowed that it would not back down. In response, the EU’s 28 member-state Foreign Ministers voted for a measure that suspended foreign aid and suspended negotiations that would benefit Turkey economically. After the vote, Turkey promised to continue to drill and several EU members called for full sanctions.

Legal Issues

A key part of the conflict is whether Cyprus can claim the region as an EEZ. Cyprus’s argument is that according to the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries can set up an EEZ up to 200 miles off their shore. All of the oil and gas deposits are within 200 miles of Cyprus’s shore. Turkey has a muddled claim that the region both belongs to the TRNC and

Turkey. First, Turkey argues that since that the deposits are off the TRNC’s coast, the TRNC has at least some right to the deposits, so Turkey only needs permission from the TRNC. The issue with this argument is that under the international legal definition of what constitutes a state, the TRNC fails to meet several criteria. To start, the TNRC was established through an illegal use of force when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, all major authorities of international law forbid a nation being created under these means. Moreover, many nations do not believe the TRNC to be an autonomous nation but instead just an extension of Turkey, which puts into doubt the idea that the TRNC has full independence. Finally, given that all nations besides Turkey have frozen out the TRNC in terms of diplomatic relations, the TRNC fails the crucial requirement that a nation must be capable of establishing diplomatic relations with other nations. Beyond receiving access to the deposits through the TRNC, Turkey argues that it has a direct claim to the gas and oil deposits because several of the deposits are within 200 miles of Turkey’s shoreline, which under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea could give Turkey a right to the area. However, Turkey does not recognize the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, and most of the areas that Turkey has blocked are not within 200 miles of its shore, making Turkey’s points moot.

In regards to Cyprus’s threat to veto any new members to the EU, the prospective members, Albania and North Macedonia, could take issue with Cyprus’s veto. Given that Cyprus’s veto would doom Albania and North Macedonia’s bid to join the EU, it might seem unfair to those countries. Despite the perceived injustice of Cyprus’s threat, it is legally permissible because any EU member can veto new members. In the past, Greece vetoed then-“Macedonia’s” bid to join, over “Macedonia’s” refusal to change its name. Though the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that Greece could not veto “Macedonia,” the decision was based specifically on a treaty the two nations signed in which Greece promised not to veto “Macedonia” from joining the EU and NATO. Moreover, even after the ICJ decision, Greece continued to veto “Macedonia’s” admittance without facing any consequences.

On the issue of potential sanctions against Turkey from the EU, though some may find it wrong for the EU nations who are in NATO to enact sanctions against their NATO ally Turkey, this would not be the first time this has occurred. In August 2018, the US brought sanctions against Turkey over a detained American. Additionally, the US has threatened sanctions against Turkey for the separate issue of Turkey potentially doing a defense deal with Russia. While sanctions over the drilling may create further tension between the EU and Turkey, there is no legal issue.

What is Next?

Turkey is unlikely to back down from drilling due to longstanding issues over the region and its desire for the valuable energy resources, but Cyprus does not want to give Turkey any more leeway. As a result, full-on sanctions from the EU against Turkey are likely the next step. Turkey’s strained relationship with the EU and the US leaves it in a fragile state. Turkey’s economy already suffered from the US sanctions in 2018. So new sanctions from the EU and/or US will hurt Turkey’s economy further. Though the EU and US hoped Turkey’s economic woes from their punishments would force Turkey to stop its problematic activities, Turkey has remained defiant and instead has cozied up with Russia. Moreover even prior to US sanctions, Turkey had been establishing ties with Russia through other defense agreements and energy deals. As a result, the EU and US are at risk of losing a NATO ally to Russia, which NATO is supposed to serve as a counter against.

As an alternative to sanctions, more energy companies could try what Exxon Mobil did and go to the region with a Naval escort. However, given that most countries do not have the naval capacity of the US, it is unlikely other countries will have the resources to do so.

Additionally, Cyprus could also bring a claim against Turkey to the ICJ, but since Turkey has refused to abide by several areas of established international law, it is unlikely that a ruling from the ICJ would have much effect.

Ultimately the situation leaves Cyprus fully justified under international law, but unable to receive full justice due to political issues. Despite this hold up, the EU has taken action to resolve the issue and additional steps exist in the form of political and economic pressure. Time will only tell if the current and future actions taken by the EU will work.

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Europe, Featured, Foreign Relations Law, General, Law of the Sea, Trade & Economic Law
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