Turkey Retracts Warning to Nabucco and the EU

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 15

On January 19 in Brussels, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to “reconsider” his country’s participation in the Nabucco gas transit pipeline project unless the European Union promptly opened negotiations on the energy chapter in Turkey’s EU accession process (see EDM, January 20). The warning’s timing, just days ahead of the Nabucco summit in Budapest and days after the Russia-Ukraine gas transit crisis, invoked Turkey’s spoiler potential as a transit country for Nabucco gas.

Erdogan’s warning shocked EU officials into seeking a quick retraction. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso held talks with Erdogan that same day and told the press that energy security was too important to be linked to specific points in the EU-Turkey accession negotiations. Nevertheless, Barroso promised that the EU Commission would do its best to unblock the energy chapter. He conceded that “the Nabucco project is very important [and] we are aware of our responsibilities.”

Back in Ankara, officials speaking to Western media issued what amounts to full retractions of Erdogan’s warning. Turkey’s European Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis declared that Erdogan had been misunderstood by Western journalists. A government spokesman quoted Erdogan as saying, “We support the Nabucco project fully and consistently” (UPI, January 22; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 22).

Erdogan’s visit to Brussels ended up irritating the opponents and supporters of Turkey’s integration with the EU in equal measure. Both sides of that intra-European debate felt that Ankara might not be above using the trump card of energy transit to pressure the EU in the negotiations toward ultimate accession. Turkey’s role as an energy transit route to Europe is a major argument invoked by European supporters of Turkey’s integration with the EU. Any misuse of Turkey’s energy transit role for political leverage on the EU would undermine that argument. It could, moreover, plant doubts about Turkey’s reliability as a transit country from a business perspective, quite apart from the Brussels debate over Turkey’s European integration.

The energy chapter is one of many chapters that have been blocked or deadlocked since the EU-Turkey accession negotiations began in 2005. Only one chapter, out of 35, has been successfully closed thus far. Cyprus, a member of the EU since 2004, is blocking the Energy chapter because Turkey disputes the right of that Greek-inhabited state to explore for oil and gas off the island’s southern coast. Turkey unilaterally recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but Ankara apparently claims to have a say on the island’s southern offshore zone. This interferes with Turkey’s own objective to advance the accession negotiations with the EU.

Entangling energy transit projects with the unresolved Cyprus problem and controversial issues in the accession negotiations would be more counterproductive for Turkey than for Europe. Ultimately, Turkey has more to gain than Europe from the accession negotiation process.

The EU expects Turkey this year to abide by the terms of the EU-Turkey customs union in Turkey’s own relations with Cyprus. This would mean allowing Cypriot ships and planes to use Turkish harbors and airports. Progress on this issue would expedite negotiations on several chapters beyond the energy chapter in the EU-Turkey accession negotiations.

Turkey has used its Nabucco trump card politically on occasion but without damaging the project. In 2007 Ankara vetoed the request of Gaz de France (GDF) to join the Nabucco consortium, after the French National Assembly had voted to criminalize denial of what the bill’s proponents termed “Armenian genocide.” The vacant seat on the Nabucco consortium was soon filled by the German energy giant RWE, while GDF-Suez France went on to seek participation in Russia’s Shtokman gas project. With support from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, GDF-Suez proposed in October 2008 to join either South Stream, the Russian rival to Nabucco, or a reconfigured Nabucco in which Gazprom would also be allowed to participate.

Turkish officials have from time to time also mooted the inclusion of Gazprom in the Nabucco project. Turkey quietly opposes South Stream because this Russian project on the seabed of the Black Sea bypasses Turkish territory. Moreover, South Stream is meant to replace Gazprom’s own earlier project, Blue Stream Two, which would have followed approximately the same overland route as Nabucco, from Turkey to Austria. Those Turkish officials who favor Gazprom’s participation in Nabucco are in effect attempting to resurrect Blue Stream Two.

For the last year or so, Turkey has demanded a preemptive right to buy 15 percent of Nabucco gas at a discounted price. This would give Turkey the option of using those volumes internally or re-exporting them at a higher price. It would also give Turkey the role a hub in addition to that of transit route (Die Zeit, January 22).

This ambition could, however, only be achieved at the expense of the other countries in the Nabucco consortium and remains an artificial stumbling block to starting the project. It is also an irritant in EU-Turkey relations and reflects an overestimation of Ankara’s ability to use its location on the transit route for unilateral leverage. Meanwhile, however, the retraction of Erdogan’s warning in Brussels would seem to signal a more constructive attitude in the run-up to the Nabucco summit in Budapest.