Energy Minister Taner Yildiz speaks to reporters in Ankara recently. [AFP] | 19/03/15

A new dialogue between Ankara and Brussels is fuelling hopes for new strategic energy partnerships.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul –

The EU and Turkey launched a high-level energy dialogue on March 16th in Turkey’s eastern province of Kars, in a move designed to improve co-operation at senior levels of government.

The initiative is in response to global events that are affecting energy supplies.

The parties will meet regularly — at least once a year– at the ministerial level, while the next meeting will focus on gas, electricity, nuclear, renewables, as well as energy efficiency and climate action.

“The launching of the high-level dialogue also clearly reflects the commitment of the European Commission, as reflected in its recently adopted Energy Union Framework Strategy of 25 February 2015, to establish strategic energy partnerships with increasingly important energy producing and transit countries,” the Commission said in a statement issued to the media.

Since early March, the European Commission has been promoting its intention to establish an energy policy partnership with Turkey.

“The Commission intends to strengthen EU-Turkey energy relations by establishing a strategic energy partnership,” said a statement released by the state-run Anadolu Agency on March 11th.

“A stronger and more united EU can engage more constructively with its partners, to their mutual benefit,” it added.

In its recent Energy Union Package, the Commission stated “the EU’s energy security is closely linked with its neighbours. Joint approaches in the field of energy can make all parts of the European Union stronger, for instance in case of supply shortages or disruptions.”

The package, which was adopted on February 25th, emphasises energy security, diversification of supply and connecting energy markets, while it also aims to reduce energy dependency on Russia and to reframe its energy relationship with Moscow, which has been under economic sanctions since its annexation of Crimea.

“As part of a revitalised European energy and climate diplomacy, the EU will use all its foreign policy instruments to establish strategic energy partnerships with increasingly important producing and transit countries or regions such as Algeria and Turkey, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, the Middle East, Africa and other potential suppliers,” said the Commission’s statement.

Turkey’s key importance for the EU’s energy future increases especially with the Southern Gas Corridor, where it will be a transit country. Natural gas from Azerbaijan will pass through Turkey to reach Greece, Albania and Italy.

However, Turkey’s membership to the EU’s Energy Community is currently limited to the observer status. The Energy Community was founded in 2005 in an effort to link Southeast Europe and Black Sea nations to the EU’s energy market, and includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Ukraine.

Sijbren De Jong, a strategic analyst at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies in the Netherlands, said Turkey wants to become the energy bridge to Europe and a gas hub for Eurasia with a rising diversity of gas suppliers.

De Jong noted that Turkey currently imports gas from Iran, and if in the future, Iran were to supply gas to Europe via Turkey, then competition in this part of the gas market will increase.

“Also, with Turkey transiting supplies from Azerbaijan, and perhaps Iran, incentives for either country to turn off the spigot in order to pressure Europe is diminished. Should Russia do this, it will make Ankara angry,” he told SES Türkiye.

“This is a clear win for Europe. Europe wants less dependence on Russia, and more competition. Turkey, as such, is much less susceptible to strong-arming from Moscow, as Ukraine is. Thus, it would dampen fears over security of supply in the winter months when the Kremlin rhetoric usually heats up again,” De Jong added.

On March 17th, Turkey and Azerbaijan began construction of a new $10 billion pipeline, which will carry gas from the Azerbaijani Shah Deniz 2 field to Turkey and then to Greece, Albania and Italy.

As part of the Southern Gas Corridor, the 1,850 kilometre Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) plan, which is due to be completed in 2018, also is expected to reduce Turkey’s and the EU’s dependence on imports of Russian gas.

Experts interviewed by SES Türkiye emphasise the need for the European Union to rapidly open accession talks regarding energy with Turkey and integrate the country into the EU Energy Community.

The energy chapter is currently blocked due to the Cyprus dispute.

“It is easier to harmonise legislation on both sides of the EU border if both the EU and Turkey are a member of the Energy Community. Both parties then have similar rights and obligations, stemming from their membership,” De Jong said.

“Adding an energy chapter to the accession negotiations would be a good idea. Certainly from the perspective of Turkey this would enable Turkey to have more clout in working with Brussels. However, if Turkey’s role as an energy hub increases, it would only be wise for both sides to negotiate clear terms on energy transit,” he added. Hasan Selim Ozertem, an energy policy expert from Ankara-based think-tank USAK, said the EU has made diversifying its energy supplies a priority, and in this sense, Turkey and North African countries at the Mediterranean basin are accorded a significant importance.

“In many senses Turkey is a critical transit country,” he said.

However, Ozertem noted, Turkey is not only a transit country, but also a developing country with a developed open market economy and experience in energy politics. Ozertem describes the blockage over the energy chapter as a significant mistake, which undermines chances to transform Turkey’s energy framework in line with the reform requirements coming from Brussels.

But, Ozertem also said negotiating from a “privileged strategic partnership,” as proposed by Germany, would not bring much efficiency compared with the full membership. Mehmet Ogutcu, chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club in Istanbul and of the Global Resources Partnership, criticised the EU for its energy relationship with Turkey. “[There is] no meaningful dialogue and win-win partnership proposition to unlock the huge potential for energy flows from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, Iran and Russia,” Ogutcu told SES Türkiye. “Not even the launch of the accession negotiations on the energy chapter, which is a self-help for the EU.”

As a result, Ogutcu said, Turkey is advancing its own interests.

“The European Commission, under new management, is keen on building the Energy Union, in which Turkey is potentially a most important partner. It can even be a founder at the earliest stage,” he said.