East Med Gas Forum to enhance regional ties, boost EU energy security

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Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) as an intergovernmental organisation in a virtual ceremony hosted by Cairo this week.

The EMGF can include any East Med country and facilitate the exploration of hydrocarbons in the region. Its charter says that its aim is “to serve as a platform that brings together gas producers, consumers and transit countries to create a shared vision and establish a structured systematic policy dialogue on natural gas”.

But joining is contingent on a country agreeing to EMGF’s main values and aims, Charles Ellinas, a senior fellow at the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council, told New Europe on September 23, asked if regional rival Turkey could become a member. “These include respecting ‘the rights of members with respect to their natural resources in accordance with the principles of international law and certainly through cooperation and without the use of force. This is something that Turkey could not comply with at present,” Ellinas said, noting that success in the forthcoming negotiations with Greece and resolution of the Cyprus problem may open the way.

Constantinos Filis, director of research at Institute of International Relations, told New Europe by phone on September 24 said that from the Greek perspective Turkey is not and should not be excluded. “But due to its policies up until now and the fact that it has deteriorated on purpose its relations with Israel and that it supports the Muslim Brotherhood which complicates situations with Egypt, it seems for now not impossible but not really probable to see Turkey join this forum,” Filis said, reiterating that Greece’s intentions are not to exclude or isolate Turkey. “It’s up to the Turkish leadership to decide whether it wants to play following the rules of the game or play on its own,” he said.

Filis said that there seems to be a slight turn in Turkish foreign policy. “It seems that diplomacy is prevailing be it due to economic reasons because the Turkish economy right now is in deep trouble or the fact that (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan realised that he has overreached his limits in many parts of his foreign policy opening too many fronts at the same time,” he said, noting that Ankara may be adopting a more flexible policy in the region.

Ellinas noted that the EMGF can facilitate cooperation and stability among members, but cannot apply pressure on Turkey. “So far it has been the other way around. So far, though, it has been ineffective, acting like a talking-shop. Its use has been mostly in terms of regional politics but vague and lacking on practicalities, especially given the region’s burning problems in need of urgent resolution. But now this has the potential to change,” he said.

France has applied to join the Forum while the United States and the European Union support the EMGF and participate as observers. The US and the EU can provide invaluable political support and help maintain coherence and cooperation,” Ellinas said, adding that the EU can provide technical, regulatory and policy assistance.

The US Department of Energy congratulated the members of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum upon signing their charter in Cairo. “EMGF will help harness the full potential of East Med natural gas and strengthen regional energy security,” the US Department of Energy said in a tweet.

The EMGF is expected to facilitate the export of gas from the East Med region, increasing EU energy security and reduce reliance on Russian gas supplies, Filis said. Egypt wants to become the energy hub in the Eastern Mediterranean while Greece and Italy want to transport gas from the East Med sources to the European market, he said. “From the very beginning the Eastern Mediterranean has been regarded as an alternative to Russia. Not an alternative in terms of quantities but as an extra source that will add up to the EU’s attempt to become more independent from Russian gas,” Filis said.

But Ellinas argued that with global gas markets expected to continue being quite competitive and gas prices low, gas exports from the region will continue being quite challenging. “The Forum’s aims include commitment to pave the way for a sustainable regional gas market.’ This, if realised, is most important to the future of gas in the region. Regional cooperation through EMGF could facilitate development of regional energy markets, through a combination of gas and renewables, unlocking this potential,” Ellinas said, adding, “Otherwise significant benefits from gas might not materialise”.

The virtual ceremony on September 22 was attended by Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Greece’s Environment and Energy Minister Kostis Hatzidakis, Egypt’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El-Molla, Cyprus’ Energy, Commerce and Industry Minister Natasa Pilides, Jordan’s Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jordan Hala Zawati, Italy’s Deputy Economic Development Minister Alessandra Todde and the Palestinian Authority’s Ambassador to Egypt Diab Allouh, Greece’s Environment and Energy Ministry said.

For Israel, the forum “brings regional cooperation with Arab and European countries, the first of its kind in history, with contracts to export (Israeli) gas to Jordan and Egypt worth $30 billion, and that is just the beginning,” Reuters quoted Steinitz as saying.

Hatzidakis hailed the establishment of the EMGF, noting, “It’s not just the end of a two-year intensive effort to establish the first regional cooperation agency in the region, but above all the beginning of closer intergovernmental cooperation at all levels”.

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