The new energy map in Europe, the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean

First published in the Serbian Strategic Review, Nr. 5, 2023


By Dr. Panagiotis Sfaelos


The war in Ukraine has created a new geopolitical reality where energy security is fundamental for the future of Europe. Already, there is an energy and food crisis in Europe as a result of the war and the hard economic sanctions towards Russia. The war has made Europe realize the importance of energy sufficiency and security. The need for independence from Russian energy is now evident more than ever. Europe’s future depends largely on its self-sufficiency and security in gas resources. A transit to green energy would be ideal for Europe, although such transition requires time that Europe does not have. Gas is the ideal transition fuel towards a more clean energy. Therefore, Europe is in need of gas and has to find alternative energy resources in order to be self-sufficient. At the moment, the EU imports Liquidated Natural Gas (LNG) from the USA which needs further development in terms of the transport network while the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean constitute the best alternative to Russian gas. At the same time, the Eastern Mediterranean offers way more opportunities for Renewable Energy Sources (solar, wind and water energy).

Import of LNG in Europe

The USA is producing LNG in large scale which can be transported to Europe. Greece plays major role in the transportation of LNG. It is estimated that at the end of 2023, when the first of the planned floating LNG storage units in Greece will start operating offshore the port, flows to the Balkans and Central Europe will increase significantly. It was preceded by the historic last year, when Greece became the first energy exporter in the Balkans, covering more than 35% of Bulgaria’s natural gas needs through Revythousa. At the end of the decade, the railway network will be able to connect the ports of Alexandroupoli, Thessaloniki and Kavala with corresponding large ports on the Black Sea, for the transport of bulk dry cargo, bypassing the Bosporus Straits, at a great loss to Turkey. Alexandroupoli is developing into a complex geopolitical hub, a point of reference for defense, energy security, business and trade in the Balkans and Central Europe. The increased American presence in the area is also a positive factor.

Another source of gas for Europe is the Transatlantic Pipeline (TAP) which transports gas from Azerbaijan to Italy through Turkey, Greece and Albania. The operation and especially the extension of the TAP pipeline, will transform the Balkans into energy hubs for South East Europe but also for the EU as a whole. TAP started its operation in 2020 and is already supplying the Greek and Italian markets with Azeri gas, while soon the Greek-Bulgarian IGB pipeline inter-connector will be able to supply gas to the neighboring country and the rest of the Balkans. According to the Bulgarian President Ruman Radev, there is also a possibility to construct the Alexandroupoli – Burgas oil pipeline will create the necessary basis for the implementation of a project that will allow the transfer of crude oil from the Aegean to the Black Sea region. This is a geopolitical advancement of the Balkans in their role as energy hubs for the EU.


Energy from the Eastern Mediterranean

The second alternative to Russian gas is the utilization of the natural gas resources of the Eastern Mediterranean. Further, in the logic of the green transition, two electric cables aspire to carry, by the end of the decade, green energy from Egypt and Israel to Europe. One is the Greece (Crete) – Cyprus – Israel cable, of the Euro Asia Interconnector, costing 2.5 billion Euros and 1,200 km long. A more mature part constitutes the Crete – Cyprus section, 898 km, where Siemens and Nexans have been selected as manufacturers, for the transmission of electricity in both directions, with a power of 1 GW. Another cable is the Cyprus-Israel, with an implementation horizon of 2029. A 950 km long Greece-Egypt cable also has a clear environmental footprint, since it aspires to transfer green energy from North Africa to Europe. Its implementation depends on the completion of the study of final cost estimation of the project with maximum depth of 2.7 kilometers. In today’s prices, the cable is valued at over €4 billion, with the aim of carrying 3.5 gigawatts of energy generated by 9.5 gigawatts (estimated €8 billion) of solar and wind farms to be built by Kopelouzos group in Egypt together with investors, with whom he is also discussing.

A hush has prevailed in recent weeks surrounding Exxon Mobil’s seismic surveys in the waters of Crete. At the end of the month, it is said that the company is completing its investigations. If all goes well, the first wells are set for early 2025. Another American oil company, Chevron, is said to be interested in the Greek exploration program.

Another crucial project is East Med Pipeline which was abandoned by the USA in January 2022 as non-economically viable project. After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, however, the project seems to be revived. The new Israeli government presented a revived interest to the construction of the East Med Pipeline, which was conveyed by the Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Koehn to the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. Israel shows real willingness to put the 2.000 km long underwater project back into play.

The Israeli interest in the East Med project coincides, perhaps not coincidentally, with the mobility on the part of Italy’s new government. Since Italy was, until before the start of the war, negative towards the project, which contributed to its freezing, the revival of interest from Italy has its own significance. The importance of the East Med was mentioned two weeks ago from the floor of the Assembly of the National Association of Italian Natural Gas Companies Proxigas, Nicola Monti, CEO of Edison. The Italians jointly control with the Greek gas company DEPA (50%-50), the company IGI Poseidon, which promotes the project. In his speech, Mr. Monti made special reference to the role that the East Med can play in Europe’s energy security and expressed the view that it should definitely go ahead. Further, the Vice-President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Parliament, Paolo Formentini expressed his hope that the Turkish mistrust can be eased and that Italy can provide expertise and security in the region, without underestimating the high cost and technical difficulties and the fact that the project will also be available for the hydrogen transport in view of the energy transition. Unlike liquidated gas, the pipeline ensures a stable supply over time at a stable price, he said. The revival of the East Med project would certainly create a new independent energy supply network for Europe eliminating the Russian energy dependence.

The extraction of natural gas resources from the Eastern Mediterranean will secure the EU’s steady energy supply in the future. However, given that the Israeli and Egyptian gas fields account for only 3% of Russian supplies to the EU, it will not be sufficient. However, there are gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus, which amount to roughly 600 billion cubic meters and could cover the European energy needs. But in order for the European markets to exploit the reserves of Cyprus, it becomes necessary to build a pipeline that would connect the Cypriot gas fields with the Egyptian LNG terminals in order to be able to reach the EU from there. At the same time, the wealth of sun and wind in the region gives hope that the EU will be able to extract additional green electricity and hydrogen from there in the future. Although Cyprus is not active in hydrogen production, it plays a central role in the interconnection plans of the river basins of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, through the Euro Asia Interconnector pipeline, which will connect Cyprus to the Greek electricity grid. However, in order to be able to market its green energy resources, Cyprus must first promote its use, since, although the island has the highest continuous solar radiation in the EU, it ranks last in terms of the share of Renewable Energy Sources in the production of electricity. A serious factor slowing down the progress of the project is the unresolved conflict with Turkey due to the Turkish invasion of 1974. As a result of this problem, Turkey is creating problems to the companies extracting gas and prevents Turkish-Cypriots benefit from the Euro Asian Interconnector.

These developments will ensure the gradual independence from Russian gas. Europe and particularly the Balkans will benefit from these developments, as they are in the middle of the energy routes from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Europe. The admission of the Western Balkans in the EU is of critical importance in this respect. Especially, Serbia should speed its admission process in the EU although it is still largely dependent on Russian gas. The very fact that the gas interconnectors are in the Balkans changes completely the energy landscape in the area.

The war in Ukraine had the opposite effects for the West than those expected by Putin, because it actually unified the Western countries against Russia and awakened Europe. It made Europeans to realize the value of energy security, the importance of the method of production i.e. that it is more important to be produced by Renewable Energy Sources, instead of natural gas and oil, and that electricity is not free. The war has changed Europe’s energy map, with investment in batteries increasing by 79% and in solar by 35%, reaching a record level of 40 gigawatts. The war made Europeans aware of the importance of energy independence. The wrong policy followed by the Germans for decades, which imported cheap Russian gas as the means of achieving perpetual growth. The end of the Nord Stream projects made Germans realize their mistake. If it were not for the war, none of the major Greek energy projects, the Greek-Bulgarian pipeline, the Greece-Egypt cable, the oil pipeline from Alexandroupoli to Burgas would have run so fast. Neither Alexandroupoli would have been upgraded to such an unprecedented energy hub, nor of course would interest have been rekindled, like that of Exxon Mobil in Crete, for hydrocarbon research, which before the war, the green European policy had extinguished.

In conclusion, cooperation between countries of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans must be further enhanced in order to be able to create an energy hub network which will ensure the EU’s energy security and sustainability. This area is rich in natural resources (sun, sea and wind) offering huge opportunities for production of cheap energy while in parallel increasing the GDP of the countries which participate. In this way, Russia will not be able to play its games based on the energy needs of Europe. The EU cannot become a strong global player if it has no energy security. The global competition in the energy field is fierce, as we move closer to the transition from oil to green energy resources. In this framework, the Eastern Mediterranean acquires a special geopolitical value.


Dr. Panagiotis Sfaelos BA, LLB, LLM, PhD is a Lawyer, International Relations Expert and Journalist, Secretary General of the Association of European Journalists (Greek Section) and Vice-President of the Center for International Strategic Analyses – KEDISA. He is also an Associate Professor at the Hellenic Police Academy.

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