Egypt, Greece, Cyprus: Partnership amid economic political difficulties?

Ahmed Abbas
14 Min Read
The heads of state further highlighted the importance of international solidarity to address the illegal immigration phenomenon. Presidency handout

A second trilateral meeting between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus was held last Wednesday in Athens, and a joint collaboration between the three countries is being shaped.

The gas explorations in the eastern Mediterranean have resulted in crucial discoveries for the three states, especially Egypt, as it is in dire need of an economical boast, and Greece, which is still suffering from the economic crisis. Moreover, forming an ally in the face of Turkish policies in the region may be also a target of this alliance.

These have been floated as the foremost potentials, as experts speculate on the strategic importance of this alliance, and the time at which it comes. George Filis, Adjunct Professor of European Affairs at the American College of Greece, believes this alliance is important for both geo-economic and geo-political reasons.

Geo-economic collaboration

In August 2015, the Italian company Eni announced the discovery of a giant natural gas deposit in the deep waters of Egypt. The discovery could hold a potential of 30tr cubic feet of gas on an area of about 100 sqkm. The Zohr reserve is the largest gas discovery ever made in Egypt and in the Mediterranean Sea, according to Eni.

In the same year, Noble Energy, which is responsible for exploration of hydrocarbons in Block 12 of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone, announced the discovery of the Aphrodite natural gas field.

Filis believes that the discovery of the super-giant natural gas deposit (Zohr) in the Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) could be a game-changer in the energy developments of the region, while it might reorient the plans and priorities of both Cairo and other stakeholders.

“This discovery, in combination with the recent developments and findings in the Cypriot EEZ (Aphrodite deposit), along with the fact that the newfound Egyptian deposit is very close to the Cypriot EEZ, increases the probability of discovering something similar on the other side of the maritime borders. Greece’s preparations of for the conduction of similar explorations in the region south of Crete and in the Ionian Sea make the demand for cooperation and coordination urgent and natural,” Filis told Daily News Egypt.

Discussion are being held between Nicosia and Cairo regarding the possibility of transporting Cypriot natural gas to existing Egyptian facilities for further processing, and exports are moving in this direction. This could increase Greece’s importance as an emerging regional energy hub through the full materialisation of the potentials of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project.

“This means Greece will need to secure extra natural gas quantities (LNG or conventional), a part of which might come from Cyprus and Egypt,” Filis added.

The gas explorations in the eastern Mediterranean cannot be handled by one country, according to Marios Evriviades, Cypriot professor of International and European Relations.

“No country can take on all of these explorations on its own; it is an area that everybody can claim. This is why they are in collaboration to identify the economic zones,” Evriviades told Daily News Egypt.

He added that the three countries are trying to establish a regional body towards everybody’s benefit. Since Greece and Cyprus are EU members, they are required to follow the EU regulations regarding forming such bodies, and this body may work under the EU laws, according to Evriviades.

Cyprus has also signed treaties with Israel and Lebanon regarding the borders of its exclusive economic zone. The Israeli Leviathan gas field is only 21 miles away from the Cypriot Aphrodite. Thereby, Evriviades believes that both Israel and Lebanon may join this cooperation. “If a regional body is established between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, Israel may join because it has interests,” he said.

Abdul Monem Saeed, head of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, believes the cooperation among the three countries tips in Egypt’s favour since it is currently facing major economic problems.

“The three countries have large opportunities to benefit from this cooperation through the exchange of experience, as each one of the countries has great expertise in a certain field. To avoid the cooperation’s failure, they must divide the resources among them and prevent any other side from intervening in their affairs,” Saeed told Daily News Egypt.

The Athens Declaration announced during the meeting, along with the clear official statements by the three country’s leaders, set a solid basis for more organised and regulated cooperation on maritime and energy policies. The creation of the joint structures, and the fact that all leaders underlined their willingness that their next meeting in Cairo will be accompanied with tangible steps towards the practical materialisation of the agreement, affirm the certainty surrounding the collaboration.

Do borders pose a problem?

While media reports said Egypt and Greece may take time to agree on maritime borderlines, Saeed does not believe this will be a problem.

“No conflicts are expected among the three countries due to the presence of certain principles articulated in international law that must be followed in such coalitions. I believe the three countries are fully aware of these principles,” he said.

For Cyprus, the borders with Egypt and Israel have already been identified, but Evriviades believes the Gaza Strip’s maritime borders are more problematic. “Gaza strip has its own sea borders, and I think Egypt, Cyprus and Israel accept that,” he said. He added that any cooperation body must take into consideration the interests of Palestinian authorities.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras spoke of the importance of a two-state solution to the Palestinian case. Evriviades believes this fits into the framework of establishing a regional body that deals with gas exploration.

He added that any cooperation in this area will empower Palestinians, as they will be given the facilities to explore gas and participate in this regional body. “I think the international community will accept this,” he said.

Collaboration crucial to help post-crisis Greece

For the last seven years, Greece has experienced a tremendous economic devastation that is unprecedented for a developed country and economy during peace-time. Despite this, Greece is utilising its tremendous human and capital resources. Its unmatched economic potentials due to its geographical positioning and the entrepreneurial nature of its people demonstrates a societal cohesion that only a nation with the history, tradition and roots of the Greek people could comprehend and safeguard, Filis believes.

However, the danger, not just for Greece but for the EU as whole, has not passed. “Immigration and refugee flows, the neo-protectionist measures of many of our European colleagues along with the rise of extreme-right and/or extreme-left ideologies (especially the former) create a situation which destabilises the EU as a whole and puts the European integration project into question,” he continued.

“Within this framework, Greece should act as a paradigm for resilience for all the countries of the region. Moreover, the geographic advantage of the country, along with the existing state-of-the-art infrastructures, might enable neighbouring countries –like Egypt- to use Greece as a transportation and commercial hub, as a reliable energy partner for exporting natural gas to the EU, and of course as a valuable colleague for know-how transfer and high technology projects,” Filis said.

The cooperation will also create new job opportunities for young Greeks, and this will reduce unemployment rates, he noted.

According to Filis, post-crisis Greece has a lot to offer, both in material and in intellectual terms, to all the countries and the companies that comprehend these potentials and benefits. Moreover, as the Athens Declaration signed after the tripartite meeting states, the three countries are about to establish a standing Joint Committee of Cooperation aiming to “formulate, develop, and promote practical projects of trilateral interest”.

Geopolitical cooperation: An alliance against Turkey?

Focusing on the Greek point of view, the timing for the development of a strategic alliance with Cairo is crucial. “Our countries right now constitute the main pillars of stability in the broader region that I define it as the water axis of the Black Sea – Straits – Aegean – Eastern Mediterranean (BSSAEM),” Filis said.

“In purely geopolitical terms, Greece and Cyprus need Egypt, and Egypt needs Athens and Nicosia as a base of reference, reliance and certainty in an era of turbulence, instability and uncertainty,” he added.

The basic threats that Greece and Cyprus face are common with Cairo’s issues of major concern. The most important regional threat for Greece and Cyprus are the neo-Ottoman aspirations of a revisionist and aggressive Turkey that tries to challenge the status in both of the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Filis believes Ankara’s dubious policies regarding combating “Islamic State” and its unacceptable practices regarding the unprovoked attack on a Russian air force aircraft in Syria, as well as its intrusion into the Iraqi sovereign space near Mosul, prove that Turkey, at least its current political elite, is not part of the solution for the chaos in the region, but rather part of the problem.

As such, “deterring a revisionist imperialist Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and combating terrorism, and its supporters, in the broader area constitute a top priority to Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, a reality which offers the necessary common interest to bring together our countries and forge a strategic alliance, which will become the new point of reference in the eastern Mediterranean,” Filis said.

Saeed believes the cooperation between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus aims to address the Turkish policies in the region “especially as dealing with Turkish situation requires coalitions, as well as helping Egypt determine the marine boarders to discover gas and petroleum in the Mediterranean Sea”.

However, Evriviades believes Turkey would be welcomed if it decided to join this coalition, provided that it follows international law. “The problem of Turkey is that it wants to play according to its own rules,” Evriviades said. He believes when the three leaders said they welcome any country to join the cooperation, provided that it accepts international law, they may be referring to Turkey.

“Turkey is in our interest, because we want stability, but stability that is based on balance, and not one that comes out of aggression,” he said. Turkey must change its policies before it can join according to him.

More positive economy, more stability

The most efficient and effective energy scheme should be utilised in order for all the parties to reap the benefits of this cooperation, according to Filis.”Greece and Cyprus could act as the best ally in the EU for Egypt and might support and contribute to the further enhancement of Cairo’s relations with Brussels. “Cairo could attract Greek investments and human capital,” he said.

Meanwhile, Evriviades believes that the interests of both Greece and Cyprus support a strong stable Egypt, and to achieve this, the three countries should work to enhance their economies.

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Ahmed Abbas is a journalist at DNE’s politics section. He previously worked as Egypt based reporter for, and interned as a broadcast journalist at Deutsche Welle TV in Berlin. Abbas is a fellow of Salzburg Academy of Media and Global Change. He holds a Master’s Degree of Journalism and New Media from Jordan Media Institute. He was awarded by the ICFJ for best public service reporting in 2013, and by the German foreign office for best feature in 2014.
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