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Even while political turmoil engulfs Ankara and Istanbul, the Turkish general staff set their sights on northern Iraq, and Western scholars write about the ‘loss’ of Turkey, the functional links that bind the NATO member and EU aspirant to transatlantic structures are being strengthened. The most important of these functional links is Turkey’s growing role as an energy hub, the crossroads in the vaunted East-West transport corridor, connecting the exporters of Central Asia, with the consumers of Western Europe. The implications of this role stretch beyond mere energy infrastructure: not only reducing Europe’s unwise dependence on Russian sources, but facilitating Western integration in strategic parts of Eurasia.
Europe needs Turkey. The EU is the world’s greatest energy importer, and the largest consumer without significant energy reserves. According to the European Commission, in 2007, over half of the EU’s oil and natural gas needs are imported, the vast majority from Russia. By 2030, this number will reach 70%, surpassing 80% for natural gas. Even with the development of alternative fuel sources, or reinvestment in nuclear power, overdependence on one country for fossil fuels is risky. But, with Russia not reinvesting in its Soviet-era extraction infrastructure, descending into revanchist authoritarianism and using its position as an ‘energy superpower’ to force its will on downstream neighbours, overdependence can be outright dangerous. The alternative routes from the Caspian and Central Asia that can diversify European sources logically flow through Turkey.
The US needs Turkey. While the US holds significant energy reserves, and its main sources for imported energy are Canada, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico, its effort to extricate itself from dependence on the volatile Middle East, has meant significant American interest in making available the vast oil and gas resources of the Caspian. Given the diplomatic impasse over Iran’s drive towards nuclear capabilities, and the need to avoid dependence on Russia, Turkey presents the only viable route through which to thread energy links to Central Asia.
And, Turkey is filling the void. In July 2006, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, linking Azerbaijani fields in the Caspian to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, opened amid great fanfare. The tankers, ever-increasing in number as the pipeline’s capacity grows, are largely bound for Europe. Turkish officials plan to set up an energy stock market at Ceyhan, and increase the port’s capacity for exports from Iraq. The BTC’s twin, the South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP), that links Caspian gas reserves to Turkey’s energy grid at Erzurum should soon provide gas for Europe through the planned South-European Gas Ring. The latter project, currently under construction, will connect Turkey with Greece, and extend pipelines to Italy and the Balkans.
These projects would have never been realized were it not for support, financial and political, from the transatlantic community. The Turkey-Greece Interconnector is supported by funds from the EU’s Trans-European Networks program, and is seen as a vital functional link to reinforce Greek-Turkish co-operation. The BTC and SCP pipelines required considerable promotion and support from the US and European governments, the World Bank, and the EU-driven TRACECA, an intergovernmental organisation fostering development of the East-West transport corridor.
However, the vision of diversified transatlantic energy sources requires two more projects to be complete: the Trans-Caspian pipeline, to tap directly into Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan’s vast reserves while avoiding Russia, and the Nabucco pipeline, which would connect Turkey with Austria, via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. It would seem that both projects received significant setbacks in May, when Moscow negotiated export deals with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and pressured the Austrian and Hungarian governments to reconsider Nabucco. However, there are more than enough Central Asian reserves to satisfy Russia and Europe, making both the Trans-Caspian and Nabucco viable, and preferable to Russian links for the diversity they will provide.
Russia’s rival routes, the Nordstream pipeline through the Baltic Sea to Germany, the Bluestream pipeline through the Black Sea to Turkey, and the Southstream pipeline through the Black Sea and Adriatic to Italy are notable not only in that they would increase European dependence on Russia, but in that they are direct country-to-country links that would split EU energy policy.
Despite its accomplishments so far, the transatlantic community has never had a coordinated approach to the East-West transport corridor. A first step in developing such a strategy is to acknowledge Turkey’s role as a transatlantic energy hub, and include Ankara in a renewed commitment to finishing the two remaining links in the corridor. Reinforcing the effort, will not only provide for the energy diversification so needed in the West, but the co-operation that the functional endeavour requires can serve to renew Turkey’s strategic place in the transatlantic structure.
Alexandros Petersen is Visiting Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC.
These views are the author's own and do not reflect the corporate view of RUSI.