This analysis was published by Al Jazeera International.
Greek-Turkish relations have been thrown into a new diplomatic crisis since November 28, when Turkey announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya delimiting their maritime boundaries.
The memorandum traces a corridor of water between the Turkish and Libyan coasts that cuts across what Greece views as its islands’ maritime area.
At stake are national prestige and the prospect of hydrocarbons. Greece and Turkey have not delimited their Exclusive Economic Zones, which allow countries to exploit undersea wealth. Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, who have delimited their EEZs, have all discovered offshore gas fields that can power their economies for decades.
Alarmed by Turkish statements that Turkey would send ships to look for oil and gas in its new dominions, Greece reinforced its military garrison on Crete and told Turkey that its drillships would be sunk.
Greece has also launched a diplomatic counter-offensive to isolate Turkey and ensure that its memorandum with Libya remains dead in the water.
The US, Russia, Egypt and Israel have denounced it. So has the European Union. The deal “infringes upon the sovereign rights of third States, does not comply with the Law of the Sea and cannot produce any legal consequences for third States" - meaning it is not binding for EU member Greece, EU leaders say.
Greece’s foreign minister is to go on a tour of the Arabian peninsula next week, drumming up further support.
Do islands have an EEZ?
Yet these diplomatic successes may mean little to Turkey, which has already been threatened with EU sanctions for searching for oil and gas in the Cypriot EEZ this year.
“Turkey has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and argues that it is not bound by its provisions that award islands maritime zones,” says Ioannis Grigoriadis, Jean Monnet Chair of European Studies at Bilkent University in Ankara. “What is interesting in this case is that it found another neighbouring country, Libya… to endorse that position.”
Israel and Egypt rejected earlier Turkish overtures to divide the east Mediterranean in a way that would deprive Cyprus of an EEZ.
The Law of the Sea clearly states that “the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to other land territory,” except in the case of rocks and islets incapable of sustaining human habitation or economic life (UNCLOS Art. 121). Turkey’s deal with Libya clearly appears to contravene that provision, depriving the inhabited Greek islands of Kastellorizo, Karpathos, Kasos and Crete of an EEZ.
Turkey’s position is also contradictory. Whereas it does not recognise an EEZ for the Greek islands of the Aegean, it recognises an EEZ for Cyprus, which partly benefits an internationally unrecognised Turkish-Cypriot state in the Turkish-occupied north of the island.
Asked about that contradiction, Turkish ambassador to Athens Burak Ozugergin tells Al Jazeera, “The same goes for the way that the Greek Cypriots are treating the Turkish Cypriots. They (the Greek Cypriots) need to abandon their landlord-tenant way of looking at their northern neighbors and start acting like genuine partners if they want to be “a normal state” in the future. The Greek Cypriots are always keen to start negotiations but never to finish them, ultimately wasting everybody’s time. That is the real contradiction you should be asking about.”
The Greek-Cypriot-dominated government of Cyprus has agreed to share its hydrocarbon wealth among Greek and Turkish Cypriots, but only after a political deal to reunify the island, divided by a 1974 Turkish invasion. Three rounds of talks since 2004 have failed.
“As for law of the sea matters,” Ozugergin says, “our positions always take into account the meaning and purpose of law in general, as well as the considered direction of court decisions rendered in maritime disputes. Indeed, courts are increasingly handing down judgments limiting the effect of islands in maritime boundary cases if their location distorts equitable delimitation.”
May the government in Tripoli sign an agreement?
Greece also disputes whether the Tripoli government is authorised to sign an agreement with Turkey. A civil war in Libya has split the Government of National Accord formed in 2015. The elected parliament and Libyan army are now based in Benghazi, and the presidential council and cabinet, which signed this deal, are protected by their own militias in Tripoli.
Greece has on three occasions intercepted ships supplying Turkish weapons to the Tripoli government. “If the [Tripoli] government believes this initiative will save it by bringing a mass inflow if Turkish weapons, it will discover that Greece and Egypt will intensify naval patrols they have undertaken to enforce the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on Libya’s warring parties,” says Theodoros Tsakiris, Associate Professor for Geopolitics & Energy Policy and the University of Nicosia.
Visiting Athens on Thursday, Libyan parliament speaker Aguila Saleh said, “The government [in Tripoli]… has lost two votes of confidence and has never received the support of the legally elected parliament. It has no right to sign an international treaty affecting Libyan sovereignty.”
Will Greece and Turkey go to war?
Greece and Cyprus, as EU members, are playing by the book, and invoking international law in their positions. Turkey is less invested in this legal order. It has had its hopes of EU membership dashed. But under President Erdogan it has quadrupled its economy and greatly expanded its defence capabilities. It has forged an energy alliance with Russia and seeks a regional order more suited to its interests.
This leaves Greece and Turkey with very different frames of reference, but they are still talking. “It is true that we have longstanding disputes in the Aegean Sea with Greece. But we also have reasonably well-established channels to discuss these issues, of course within the confines of good neighborliness and international law,” says ambassador Ozugergin.
“I believe that things will fall into place once Athens realizes and accepts that we are neighbors and not rivals across the Aegean Sea.”
Turkey’s stance is less civil when it comes to Cyprus, however.
“Having said that, a new situation has been developing in the Eastern Mediterranean in the past few years due to Greek-Cypriot recklessness,” says Ozugergin. “They have gone out of their way, through various groupings which include Greece, to try to contain and even constrain Turkey “within her own corner of the Eastern Mediterranean.” It is no wonder that we would not remain silent when our rights and interests (and those of the Turkish Cypriots) are being ignored.”
Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt this year declared an energy alliance, through which they plan to pursue projects of common interest. One such project is East Med, a potential undersea natural gas pipeline that would travel 2,000km via Greece and Italy, bringing Cypriot and Israeli gas to Europe. Turkey has yet to find any hydrocarbons in indisputably Turkish waters, while Greece and Cyprus are licensing consortia to explore promising concessions.
But the vision of a pipeline that circuments its EEZ, turns Cypriot energy interests into European energy interests, elevates the energy status of Greece in the EU and offers Greece and Cyprus a leading role in the EU’s relations with the Middle East, greatly concerns Turkey. Quite apart from the economic implications of being left out of an energy bonanza, it is a state of affairs that sits ill with its expansive vision of itself under Erdogan.
George Pagoulatos, Director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, a think tank, believes that the European Union’s diminution is offering Turkey an opportunity to indulge that vision.
“Europe is faced with a declining role and global influence… agreements it had supported and been vital in bringing about, such as the Paris Climate Accord and the [nuclear deal with Iran] are trashed by the [US]. It is faced with the rise of a very dynamic competitor which it increasingly views as a rival and a systemic challenge, China, and it cannot rely on its most stable postwar ally, the US.”
Greece certainly seems to feel that it has legal allies but not military ones. Defence minister Nikos Panayotopoulos recently told a television network that if it came down to a fight in the Aegean, “We shall not wait for anyone to come and help us. Whatever we do, we shall do alone.”