Monday, 25 January 2021

Greece and Turkey restart historic exploratory talks

An abstract of this article was published by Al Jazeera

ATHENS, Greece – Ever since she could hold fishing twine, Vasiliki Mastroyiannaki has gone out onto the Ionian Sea in the family caique. In the last 20 years, however, the family’s revenues have fallen along with their catch, as huge trawlers from Italy and Egypt harvested Greek waters. 

“I think there should be a law that doesn’t allow foreign boats. Only Greeks should be allowed to fish here,” says the 40 year-old. 

Her wish could come true if exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey, beginning on Monday after a four-year hiatus, go well. The talks aim to settle maritime boundaries. As a result, Greece hopes to double its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles from shore, in accordance with international law. 

Greece has begun the process off its west coast. Last week, Greece doubled its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles – the maximum allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Mastroyiannaki applauds the move, hailed as the first expansion of sovereign territory since Greece absorbed the Dodecanese Islands in 1947. The January 20 law adds 13,000 square kilometres of water, airspace and sea bed to Greece’s sovereign domain – equivalent to ten percent of its land. 

“The extension of territorial waters westward inevitably sends a message to the East,” said Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in parliament on January 20. “Under the same legal regime, we can resolve our great problem with Turkey, as long as its leaders abandon this monologue of disputation and sit down to talk.” 

Greece and Turkey nearly went to war last summer, as Turkey launched its seismic survey ship Oruc Reis to explore for undersea oil and gas. This set off alarm bells in Athens, because the Oruc Reis plied waters in the east Mediterranean which Greece claims as part of its continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone. 

Although these zones do not entail the absolute sovereignty of territorial water, they allow coastal states to exercise sovereign rights of exploration and exploitation of mineral and living resources. 

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

These talks are informal and non-binding, but if they succeed, they will produce a formal process of negotiation resulting in a treaty, or an agreement to seek arbitration at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. If neither of these things happens, Greek-Turkish tensions will continue. 

Greece has always held that it reserves the right to declare territorial waters of 12nm in the Aegean, but this is intimately connected to the issue of the continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone. 

Greece’s thousands of islands in the Aegean would give it sovereignty over 71.5% of the sea against Turkey’s 8.7% under a 12nm regime. That would leave only 19.8 percent open for discussion. 

Turkey is not a signatory to UNCLOS and disagrees with its provision of a continental shelf and an Exclusive Economic Zone for islands. It does not argue with islands’ right to territorial water, but objects to their having 12nm of it, and has threatened Greece with war should it exercise its rights under UNCLOS. 

Pressure from the EU and the US now seem to have forced Turkey to accept the treaty as the legal basis for talks, but other problems remain.  

An unclear rubric 

The already complicated task awaiting negotiators in Istanbul on Monday is made more complicated by the fact that Athens and Ankara disagree on what will be discussed. Turkey wants a broad agenda that includes the demilitarisation of Greece’s east Aegean islands. It also disputes the ownership of at least 18 of those islands – areas it calls ‘grey zones’, and has even called for a revision of the Lausanne Treaty, which settled modern Turkey’s borders in 1923. Greece wants a narrower agenda that does not question territory, or its right to 12nm of territorial waters under UNCLOS. 

“Both sides will have to show flexibility on the agenda,” says Panayotis Ioakeimidis, Professor of International and European Studies at the University of Athens. “Turkey will have to refrain from issues like the demilitarisation of islands and the so called grey zones. Greece will need to show flexibility and agree to discuss territorial waters. Between 2002 and 2013, the main subject of talks was not the EEZ and continental shelf, but the territorial waters. In fact, we had reached something close to an agreement.” 

A senior Greek diplomatic source confirms this on condition of anonymity. In 2001, Greece and Turkey held their first exploratory talks in secret. “There was no formal agreement… and each side has a slightly different interpretation of what was said, but broadly the talks agreed on 12nm of Greek territorial waters off continental shores in the Aegean, and possibly for the Cyclades, but 6nm for the islands of the east Aegean,” the source says. 

UNCLOS notwithstanding, Ioakeimidis does not believe Greece can ultimately stick to its claim to 12nm of territorial waters in the entire Aegean. “I have absolutely no doubt that [Turkey would declare war],” he says, and favours a “differentiated extension of territorial waters” like that informally agreed in 2001. 

Greece is on firmer ground when it comes to the ownership of east Aegean islands, settled by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. “The Greek arguments in all these matters are extremely strong in law, so I don’t understand why you wouldn’t bring your strongest legal points to the table,” says Pavlos Eleftheriadis, Professor of International Public Law at Oxford University. 

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

What if they don’t agree? 

The Greeks largely view the Aegean as a Greek sea, going back to Homeric times. Turkey, too, has raised expectations at home with talk of a Blue Homeland that encompasses much of what Greece sees as its continental shelf. 

“Maritime zones are a matter of national pride for [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, because Turkey has been harbouring ambitions of becoming an energy hub for some years,” says Can Erimtan, an independent historian and geopolitical commentator. “Turkey is the only country in the region without any hydrocarbons… if it were able to get hold of one or two or three energy sources, natural gas or oil, that would solve the issue there and then.”

If neither government can sell a compromise, the only peacable solution, say experts, would be arbitration at the Hague. Officially, Turkey does not recognise the court’s jurisdiction, but here, too, exploratory talks have yielded results in the past. 

“In 2004 we had agreed informally on a package of measures that included going to the Hague,” says Ioakeimidis. “Turkey says it is willing to do so, if talks fail.” 

Some Greek lawmakers go further in criticising the government’s narrow agenda, saying Greece should use this crisis to resolve all differences with Turkey. 

“The key to peace in the eastern Mediterranean, to a great degree, is the solution of the Cyprus problem. Where is this, Prime Minister? Is it off the agenda? Is this an ad hoc consensus, which is not part of any strategy on how to achieve peace?” said opposition Syriza MP Nikos Voutsis, a former speaker of parliament, on January 20. 

“If… with an open heart, we face the totality of these issues, it would be far easier to pursue, through exploratory talks, the steps we all know we need to take,” Voutsis said. 

Others, however, see only weakness in opening up the agenda. “You don’t parlay with pirates… you don’t appease expansionists,” former conservative prime minister Antonis Samaras said in an interview published on Sunday. He believes that if Greece begins to make concessions, Turkey will raise its demands. “We refuse to discuss how to divvy up Greece’s sovereign rights,” he says. “The only way to face the expansionist is with deterrence.” 

Why now? 

Greece’s biggest disagreements with Turkey – the invasion of Cyprus and maritime jurisdiction – were both caused by a colonels’ dictatorship in Athens. 

In 1970, the colonels contracted the Oceanic Exploration Company to look for oil in the north Aegean. Four years later they found the Prinos field off Thasos, awakening Turkish interest in maritime rights for the first time. Then, in July 1974, the colonels attempted to install a puppet regime in Nicosia, triggering a Turkish invasion of the northern third of the island to protect the Turkish-Cypriot population. 

These problems festered until 1999, when Greece lifted its veto on Turkish membership of the European Union. As a precondition to opening accession proceedings with Brussels, Turkey was called upon to settle its disputes with EU member Greece. The admission of Cyprus to the EU without preconditions in 2002 gave added impetus to exploratory talks, which had officially started that year. 

It was the Greeks who subsequently disappointed hopes for d├ętente. Greek-Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected a plan to reunify their island in a 2004 referendum; and Greek governments lacked the political conviction to formalise the compromises thrashed out in exploratory talks as treaties. Still, the talks proved that compromise is conceivable, and provide a roadmap. 

The political winds may now be similar to those blowing after 1999. 

Turkey has isolated itself diplomatically by launching a series of wars in Syria, Libya and the Caucasus, and encroaching on the Greek and Cypriot EEZs. The incoming Biden administration is less friendly to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the ailing Turkish economy is in need of greater access to the stable EU market. 

 “Turkey… is coming to the table because it sees that its policy is failing, circumstances are changing in the region and the world, and it wants rapprochement with the EU, but cannot do so without rapprochement with Greece,” says Ioakeimidis. 

In addition to visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, he says, Turkey seeks a customs union agreement for agricultural products, services and public procurements. 

Erimtan puts it more bluntly. “The [Turkish] economy is totally shot and Erdogan has no money…  he is trying to effect a rapprochement with the EU, even talking about EU membership.” 

Turkey’s jostling for space has also stirred Greece to action. In 2014 Greece began to sell offshore oil and gas concessions, but interest has fallen away as oil majors are wary of bidding for blocks that Turkey will dispute. Last year Greece delimited maritime zones with Italy and Egypt after decades of dithering. It is in the areas governed by these agreements that Greece is now expanding its territorial waters. It next plans to legislate 12nm of territorial water south and east of Crete. 

Greece is under pressure for other reasons, too. “Greece is in a hurry to sort out the Aegean because under European Union law it has to issue maritime spatial plans… and the deadline is March 2021,” says Eleftheriadis. 

A 2014 EU directive asked all member states to zone their territorial waters and EEZs for all economic activity, including fishing, fish farming, hydrocarbon exploration and renewable energy production. 

“All of Europe is moving towards what is called a Blue Growth strategy or Blue Economy strategy,” says Eleftheriadis, and the focus is energy - but not the hydrocarbons Greece and Turkey have fought about since the 1970s. 

“The most promising energy industry at the moment is the wind energy installations, especially floating wind turbines in the Aegean, which has extremely good wind conditions. For me that is the main economic challenge – the wind energy capacity for the Greek seas.” 

Perhaps the prospect of such inexhaustible power, the undeniable need for better conservation of the seas, and the economic pressures created by defence spending, will finally push Greece and Turkey to a bold political agreement, or at least a legal arbitration. 

As Greece prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of its Revolution against the Ottoman Empire, an expansion of sovereignty sits well with the public. Dduring the parliamentary debate on the Ionian, many lawmakers called for 12nm of territorial sea to be declared in the Aegean forthwith. But Greece no longer seeks to export war or instability. The government in Athens is dedicated to expansion through legal means.  

“Violence does not produce legal results,” Mitsotakis said in parliament, “but the law does produce peace.” 

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