This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are set to hold a tense meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in London on Wednesday.
Relations between the historic rivals have been tense since Turkey announced on Thursday that it had reached an agreement with Libya to delineate their maritime economic interests.
A map published by Turkey shows the Turkish and Libyan Exclusive Economic Zones meeting midway across the Mediterranean, over an area that is also claimed by Greece.
“I shall put to President Erdogan all the issues relating to Turkish provocation,” Mitsotakis told his colleagues according to a press release from his office. “We will talk openly. And it is in Turkey’s interest to retrench from provocative moves.”
Erdogan was unrelenting as he departed for the NATO summit on Tuesday.
“There is a request from the Greek prime minister for us to meet and we shall discuss these matters in that meeting,” he said. “But [the Greeks] should be aware that the efforts of Greece, Israel, Egypt and the Greek Cypriots will not stand in the way of the steps we have taken with Libya. We signed the agreement. We will bring it to parliament, where it will be ratified by a majority and from that point on it will be in force.”
Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt agreed on most of their EEZ boundaries beginning in 2003. Greece dispatched its foreign minister to Cairo on Sunday to speed up an EEZ agreement with Egypt.
“This agreement has been in the works since my days [as foreign minister] Dora Bakoyanni, the prime minister’s sister, told Skai radio on Tuesday. “The Egyptians were always hesitant to sign it because they feared what the Turkish reaction would be,” she said.
Bakoyanni was foreign minister from 2004 to 2009.
In 2004, Turkey proposed an EEZ delineation with Egypt similar to what it proposed to Libya – a line halfway across the Mediterranean, without reference to Cyprus,which lies between them. Egypt, which had agreed its boundaries with Cyprus the previous year, declined.
At stake is more than fishing rights. It is chiefly the ownership of potentially large oil and gas fields.
Until a few decades ago, Egypt had been thought to be the only country in the eastern Mediterranean with significant hydrocarbon resources. In 1999, Israel discovered two small fields, Noa and Mari-B. Since then, Israel has discovered more than 35 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough the power the country for a century at current rates of consumption, and is now an energy exporter.
Thanks to the discovery of the Zohr gas field in 2015, Egypt became energy self-sufficient at the end of 2018, doing away with $3bn in gas purchases a year.
Cyprus has discovered at least three major fields, and more discoveries are expected.
Greece last month ratified exploration concessions for Exxon and Hellenic Petroleum to explore a large area offshore western Crete, which is believed to contain large quantities of gas.
The United States Geological Survey estimates that the marine basin between Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon and Syria can ultimately yield 350 trillion cubic feet of gas and 3.5bn barrels of oil. That is enough to power the region for decades, or the European Union for 20 years.
Turkey seems to have been left out of this bonanza. Although it has spent more than a billion dollars on exploration vessels in the last deacde, it has announced no discoveries. Since late last year, those vessels have been drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus. The US and European Union have declared those explorations illegal.
“On the question of this purported MOU with Turkey and Libya… we certainly see such a move as detracting from the situation of stability that the United States has sought to encourage,” US ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt said on Tuesday. “We hope that as quickly as possible, the focus can return to building areas of cooperation based on international law,” he said.
Greece has sought to internationalise the issue, briefing EU foreign and security affairs chief Federica Mogherini. Mitsotakis said he also planned to raise the issue within NATO.
“An alliance cannot be indifferent when one of its members openly violates international law and in this way turns against another member,” his office reports him to have said.
Greece and Turkey have never agreed on the delineation of their EEZ. They also disagree on territorial waters and airspace. The main reason for this is that Greece is a signatory to the UN International Law of the Sea, which grants islands a continental shelf and EEZ. Turkey does not recognise that Greece’s extensive archipelago can have such rights.
As a rule, NATO has avoided taking a legal or political position on Greek and Turkish sovereignty issues in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
Mitsotakis decries this neutrality. “The tactic of taking equal distances [from Greek and Turkish positions] does a great injustice to our country, which never sought to raise tension in our region,” his office reports him to have said.
Wednesday’s meeting will be the second head-to-head chat between the veteran Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey since 2002, and Mitsotakis, elected in July. Their first was on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.
Greece’s foreign ministry says it summoned Libya’s ambassador on Friday to “immediately divulge the contents of the agreement, or the decision will be made to expel him.”