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The current tensions in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean are neither new nor a consequence of ancient history. Their origins can be traced to 1973, when Turkey first contested the Greek continental shelf. Since then, in the aftermath of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and its hardened stance towards Hellenism, the scope of that challenge has widened to encompass a broad range of rights associated with Greek sovereignty at sea and in the air. With the Imia crisis of 1996, Turkey went so far as to reject Greek sovereignty over territory which previous international agreements (the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the Italo-Turkish Agreements of 1932 and the Paris Treaty of 1947) had, taken all in all, made Greek.
Greece’s position is straightforward and, since the return of democracy in 1974, consistent. Greece wants stability in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and views the international legal order as its guarantor. All bar three of the islands in the Aegean (Bozcaada, Gökçeada and Tavşan) are Greek. They are home to a sizeable population: just over half a million people. Respect for the international treaties and agreements that underpin this settlement is, accordingly, essential in Greek eyes.
Greeks have reacted with alarm to the nationalist rhetoric emanating from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his circles: crudely revanchist comments by Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay are but the latest examples. To take Erdogan’s statements at face value, the Lausanne Treaty itself is now in doubt. This should raise a general alarm, beyond Greek shores.
Developments in international law since the 1950s have complicated matters, creating an overlay of new sovereign rights on top of prior agreements. After failing to exclude the Aegean from its scope, Turkey has notoriously refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982. It has done this primarily to frustrate the rights afforded to the Greek islands in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. In 1995, the Turkish Parliament, extraordinarily, declared that extension of the territorial waters of Greece’s Aegean islands to 12 nautical miles (a right under UNCLOS) would constitute a ‘casus belli’. Despite all that, Turkey has declared its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Black Sea, agreeing its boundaries with the other coastal states, and has asserted its right to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters there and in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greeks point out that Turkey thus recognises the fundamental provisions of UNCLOS as customary international law, binding on all.
The Greek response has been measured. Greece has not asserted its sovereign rights to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters in the Aegean (though it has now done so in the Ionian), and has long indicated its readiness to negotiate the delimitation of the continental shelf, which, in practical terms, also means its EEZ. Recent discoveries of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean add fuel and urgency to the Greek position, without fundamentally altering it. In delimiting its EEZ with other states, Greece has proceeded circumspectly: it has not, for example, used the coordinates of Kastellorizo in its partial delimitation with Egypt.
In seeking de-escalation, Greece is clear about what it wants. Above all, it wants a negotiation with Turkey, but one in which both parties have reached prior agreement to allow the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to arbitrate in the event that negotiations reach an impasse. Arbitration is surely going to be necessary: although Greece has compromised in its partial delimitation of the EEZ border with Egypt, it is hard to imagine Greek or Turkish politicians making the necessary compromises for a deal between them.
The court’s jurisprudence suggests that it will determine the issue in a way that gives neither side everything it wants. Given Turkey’s rejection of ICJ jurisdiction, a prior agreement to go to arbitration is essential (the ICJ’s disavowal of competence in Greece’s 1976 case proves the point). Furthermore, though some in NATO find this surprising, Greece does not want negotiations to begin while Turkish threats continue – whether in the form of Ankara’s increasingly abusive rhetoric or its attempts to create alternative facts at sea, by sending its survey ship, Oruç Reis, and accompanying frigates to probe in waters claimed by Turkey.
Since 2002, Greece and Turkey have held 60 rounds of inconclusive ‘exploratory contacts’ for negotiations on the continental shelf. Defining the parameters of formal talks will not be easy. Negotiation on the continental shelf and EEZ is one matter. But trickier still is the handling of Greece’s extension of its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (where geography allows). If that right were extended to all the Greek islands, Greece’s territorial waters would rise to 71.5% of the Aegean, making the passage of military shipping between the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean problematic. Extension is a unilateral sovereign right, not a matter for which UNCLOS mandates negotiation. Greek politicians will be wary of bartering away sovereign rights, however much they understand the difficulties otherwise caused to Ankara. It must also be in Greece’s interest to use negotiations to end loose Turkish talk of ‘grey zones’ of indeterminate maritime sovereignty in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Discussing such matters will be politically hazardous.
Greece wants de-escalation and negotiation but is preparing for other eventualities too: one in which Ankara indefinitely maintains current tensions, and one in which it acts with extreme provocation (for example, explorations off Cretan waters and action against Kastellorizo). The Greek political strategy accepts the reality of Ankara’s attempts to define the relationship not through modern international norms but by balance of power.
Turkey calculates that US withdrawal tilts the balance in its favour. Greece, therefore, is seeking counterweights. Irrespective of party, Greek governments have recently sought more widely spread alliances (for example with Egypt, Israel and the UAE) and undertaken joint military exercises (including also France, US and Italy) both to contain and to prevent. Major Greek efforts to update, replace and augment military hardware are underway – regained Greek access to the international money markets helps. As a response to the recent growth of Turkish naval and air forces, and Turkey’s installation of Russian S-400 missiles, a regional arms race appears inevitable.
Greece also looks to its multilateral alliances. Expectations of a helpful NATO stance are low, given NATO’s inability to act in the Imia crisis. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s initiative of 3 September, for the two sides to discuss deconfliction through technical talks, seems to have caught Athens unawares and been considered premature. Greece has expended more diplomatic effort on the EU, where, of course, Cyprus is also a member and French President Emmanuel Macron’s stance has been encouraging. Greece expects and deserves a more sophisticated reading by its partners of its careful diplomatic and legal strategy. (Athens might help itself by improving its international public diplomacy.) The important point is not that Brussels should endorse every square mile of EEZ claimed by Greece, but that it should unfailingly support Greece’s determination to sort things out under norms and processes of international law. Following the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin at the end of August, Athens will certainly expect Brussels to apply economic sanctions if de-escalation has not happened by the time of the European Council on 24 September. Its work is cut out.
Now that Turkish accession to the EU has become a pipe dream, forward-thinking voices in Athens advocate a new strategic relationship between the EU and Turkey – one which is not simply defined by northern European mercantile interests. Migration and security both need to feature. An active realignment of Greek positions with those of President Macron will continue. So far, Ankara has not stepped back, though the return to port of Oruç Reis may be a good sign. With the US election pending, time may be on Greece’s side.
John Kittmer is chairman of The Anglo-Hellenic League and a former British ambassador to Greece.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.