Greece, Turkey launch talks on Mediterranean crisis after 5 years

Athens, Greece – Greece has doubled its western territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) – the maximum allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

The law added 13,000 square kilometers to the sovereign domain of Greece, equivalent to 10% of its land.

“The extension of territorial waters to the west inevitably sends a message to the east,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told parliament on Wednesday.

“Under the same legal regime, we can solve our great problem with Turkey, as long as its leaders drop this controversial monologue and sit down to talk.”

On Monday, neighbors Greece and Turkey will begin exploratory talks in Istanbul – after a five-year hiatus – aimed at settling the maritime borders, which have caused alarming friction over the past year.

Greece and Turkey were on the verge of military confrontation last August, after Turkey launched its Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel accompanied by a small naval fleet to explore submarine oil and gas in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean that Greece claims to be part of its continental shelf and its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but which Turkey contests.

Although these zones do not imply absolute sovereignty over territorial waters, they allow coastal states to exercise sovereign rights to explore and exploit mineral and living resources.

The possibility of conflict has alarmed both NATO, of which Greece and Turkey are members, and the European Union.

“In discussions with Greece, we hope that the issues will be dealt with within the framework of rights, law and fairness, and that solutions will be found,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Saturday. .

The talks that begin on Monday are informal and non-binding, but could eventually result in a formal negotiation process culminating in a treaty, or an agreement to seek arbitration at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

If neither happens, Greco-Turkish tensions will persist – with potentially disastrous consequences.

What is the program?

Greece has always maintained that it reserves the right to declare 12nm territorial waters in the Aegean Sea, but this is intimately linked to the issue of the continental shelf and the EEZ.

Greece’s thousands of islands in the Aegean Sea – some of which lie a few kilometers off the Turkish coast – would give it sovereignty over 71.5% of the sea compared to Turkey’s 8.7% under a regime of 12 nm.

That would only leave 19.8% open for discussion.

Turkey is not a signatory to UNCLOS and does not agree to the provision of a continental shelf and an EEZ for the islands.

He does not dispute the islands’ rights to territorial waters, but opposes the 12nm distance and has threatened Greece with military action if it exercises its rights under UNCLOS.

Monday’s talks are further complicated by the fact that Athens and Ankara disagree on what should be discussed.

Turkey wants a broad program that includes discussion of the demilitarization of the Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea.

He also challenges ownership of at least 18 of these islands – areas he calls “gray areas,” and even called for a revision of the Treaty of Lausanne, which settled most of modern Turkey’s borders in 1923. .

Greece wants a more restricted program that does not call into question the territory, nor its right to 12 nm of territorial waters under UNCLOS.

“Both sides will need to be flexible in the agenda,” Panayotis Ioakimidis, professor of international and European studies at the University of Athens, told Al Jazeera.

“Turkey will have to refrain from issues such as the demilitarization of the islands and the so-called gray areas. Greece will have to show flexibility and agree to discuss territorial waters, ”he said.

Ioakimidis said the main topic of previous discussions was territorial waters, not the EEZ and the continental shelf. Greece and Turkey held 60 rounds of talks between 2002 and 2016.

“In fact, we had come to something close to an agreement,” he said.

Turkish seismic research vessel Oruc Reis sails through the Mediterranean after leaving a port in Antalya, Turkey [File: Turkish Ministry of Energy/Handout via Reuters]

A high-level Greek diplomatic source confirmed this on condition of anonymity. In 2001, Greece and Turkey held their first exploratory talks in secret.

“There was no formal agreement … and each party has a slightly different interpretation of what was said, but overall the talks agreed on 12 nm of Greek territorial waters off the mainland coasts of the Aegean Sea, and possibly for the Cyclades, but 6 nm for the islands of the eastern Aegean Sea, ”the source told Al Jazeera.

UNCLOS notwithstanding, Ioakimidis does not think Greece can ultimately stick to its claim of 12nm of territorial waters throughout the Aegean Sea.

“I have absolutely no doubt that [Turkey would declare war]”, He declared, and that Turkey is in favor of a” differentiated extension of territorial waters “like the one unofficially agreed in 2001.

Greece is on more solid ground with regard to the ownership of the islands of the Eastern Aegean Sea, defined by the Treaty of Lausanne.

“The Greek arguments in all of these areas are extremely strong in law, so I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to put your strongest legal arguments on the table,” says Pavlos Eleftheriadis, professor of international public law at the University of ‘Oxford.

“If the Greeks do not want to discuss sovereignty issues, the negotiations will fail, because you cannot negotiate an exclusive economic zone or a continental shelf unless you know where the starting point is – which islands are Turkish and which islands. are Greek, ”says Eleftheriadis. .

The Greeks largely consider the Aegean Sea to be a Greek sea, dating back to Homeric times.

Turkey, too, raised expectations at home by talking about a Blue homeland – a doctrine of naval expansion – which encompasses much of what Greece considers its continental shelf.

“Maritime areas are a matter of national pride for [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, because Turkey has been nurturing the ambition to become an energy center for several years ”, especially since Turkey has limited hydrocarbon resources, declared Can Erimtan, independent historian and geopolitical commentator.

If neither government comes to a compromise, the only peaceful solution, experts say, would be arbitration in The Hague.

Officially, Turkey does not recognize the jurisdiction of the Court, but here too the exploratory discussions have yielded results in the past.

“In 2004, we informally agreed on a package that included moving to The Hague,” says Ioakimidis.

Some Greek politicians say Greece should expand its agenda and use this crisis to resolve all its differences with Turkey – including over the divided island from Cyprus.

Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, in response to a Greek-inspired coup on the island. Greek Cypriots now live in the Republic of Cyprus in the south of the island, while Turkish Cypriots live in a northern enclave still occupied by Turkish troops.

Greece and Cyprus called for EU sanctions against Turkey in October, in retaliation for Turkish oil and gas exploration off Cyprus.

“The key to peace in the Eastern Mediterranean, to a large extent, is the solution of the Cyprus problem. Where is it, Prime Minister? Is it off the agenda? Syriza opposition MP Nikos Voutsis said on January 20.

Why now?

Turkey has diplomatically isolated itself thanks to recent military interventions in Syria and Libya, and support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in the Caucasus, and by violating Greek airspace and encroaching on the Greek and Cypriot EEZs.

Newly-elected US President Joe Biden is less friendly than his predecessor towards Erdogan, and the struggling Turkish economy needs greater access to the stable EU market.

“Turkey… wants a rapprochement with the EU, but cannot do it without a rapprochement with Greece,” said Ioakimidis.

Erdogan, who has been fiercely critical of the EU’s position on the Eastern Mediterranean in the past, told EU ambassadors in Ankara this month that he was ready to improve relations.

Turkey’s scramble for space in the region has also prompted Greece to act. In 2014, Greece started selling offshore oil and gas concessions, but interest has waned as oil majors are reluctant to bid on blocks Turkey will contest.

Last year Greece signed agreements delimiting maritime EEZs with Italy and Egypt.

It is in the areas governed by these agreements that Greece now extends its territorial waters. It then plans to legislate on 12 nm of territorial waters in the south and east of Crete.

Greece is also under pressure for other reasons. A 2014 EU directive called on all member states to zone their territorial waters and EEZs for all economic activities, including fishing, fish farming, hydrocarbon exploration and renewable energy production – and the deadline is March 2021.

Perhaps the economic outlook in the region and the flight created by defense spending, along with the continued threat of armed confrontation, will ultimately push Greece and Turkey to a bold political deal, or at least legal arbitration.

“Violence does not produce legal results,” Mitsotakis told parliament, “but law produces peace.”

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