Winter 2020

Turkey-Cyprus Oil and Gas Dispute

In December 2019, Cyprus filed a petition with the International Court of Justice in The Hague to resolve a dispute it has with Turkey concerning certain offshore mineral rights in the Mediterranean Sea.  The content of Cyprus’s ICJ petition has not yet been disclosed, so the exact content of its claim against Turkey is unclear.

The Dispute about oil and gas in the Mediterranean Sea

Turkey and Cyprus are neighbours that disagree about the delimitation of their respective sovereign rights to the seabed of the Mediterranean Sea.

In 2018, Turkish naval vessels stopped a vessel chartered by ENI, a Cypriot concessionaire, from drilling for gas in the disputed area.  In May 2019, Turkey authorised a vessel to begin drilling operations in an area west of Cyprus that is claimed by Cyprus.  In November 2019, concerns about the maritime dispute between the two States caused United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to re-engage in efforts at brokering a settlement between them.

Response of the European Union

Cyprus, but not Turkey, is a member of the European Union.

The European Council, an EU body, has expressed “serious concerns” over what it calls “Turkey’s current illegal drilling activities in the Eastern Mediterranean”.  Partly as a result, in July 2019, the European Council decided to endorse the European Commission’s proposal to reduce pre-EU-accession assistance to Turkey for 2020.  The European Council also invited the European Investment Bank to review its lending activities in Turkey.  In November 2019, the European Council adopted a framework for restrictive measures that might target individuals or entities involved in drilling activities for hydrocarbons in disputed areas of the Eastern Mediterranean.

In response, Turkey has asserted its sovereign control over the relevant part of the seabed, saying that the oil and gas in question is found in its continental shelf.

More generally around the world, recent technological developments in deepwater and ultra-deepwater drilling have expanded seaward the maritime areas in which commercial hydrocarbon exploitation can take place.  At the same time, hundreds of maritime boundaries have still not been delimited between States.  Cyprus’s submission to the International Court of Justice is just one of many disputes that have arisen, or might arise in the near future, based on competing State claims to maritime areas that have favourable prospects for offshore oil and gas reserves.