Charting a peaceful path for the disputes of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea


Turkish unilateral exploratory activities and navy escorts triggered a series of incidents and (near) collisions with Greece in disputed areas of the eastern Mediterranean in 2019 and 2020. Meanwhile, direct talks between Greece and Turkey over maritime border disputes have been stalled for five years now. Other obstacles to direct talks stem from disagreements over the Turkey-Libya memorandum of understanding and the border agreement, and by conflicting preferences regarding the scope of negotiations. The decision of Greece and Turkey to resume exploratory negotiations, “Talks about talks”, on their disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean may therefore offer an opportunity to defuse disputes and divert Greece and the EU’s relations with Turkey from confrontation.

For pragmatic discussions to make a difference in a tense geopolitical context however, concrete action is essential. First, Turkey should consider clarifying its position regarding the existence of Greek and Cypriot maritime rights as an essential first step. Second, practical deconfliction arrangements are needed to prevent incidents and to build trust between the parties, building on the hotline mediated by NATO in October 2020. Without concrete progress, tensions are likely to resurface.

Turkey‘s position on Greece’s maritime rights: the need for clarification

Turkey has detailed its position on claims and maritime borders in various letters to the UN. Yet there remains a fundamental question whether Turkey accepts the very existence of the rights of Greece and Cyprus to the continental shelves in the eastern Mediterranean Sea and whether it is at all prepared to give effect to Greek and Cypriot rights in the delimitation of borders. This question occupies an important place in disputes. The relationship between the existence of maritime rights and the delimitation of maritime boundaries is politically and legally fundamental to the settlement of maritime boundary disputes. This relationship has been clarified in the Case of the North Sea continental shelf and applied in the Arbitration in the South China Sea: It is only when maritime rights overlap that the question of the delimitation of maritime borders arises. Therefore, when a state rejects the existence of the maritime rights of another state, there is little room for a negotiated compromise on maritime boundaries. It is difficult to see how genuine negotiations between Greece and Turkey on the delimitation of maritime borders could begin without mutual recognition of the fundamental existence of overlapping continental shelf rights. Greece and Cyprus recognize that Turkey is, in principle, entitled to an EEZ and a continental shelf by claiming a median line as a maritime border even if this claim maximizes their maritime areas in the given geographical circumstances. However, Turkey’s border claim does not recognize the very existence of the rights of Greece and Cyprus to the continental shelf.

To justify his claimed maritime boundary in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey states that “islands on the wrong side of the median line between two mainland lands cannot create areas of maritime jurisdiction beyond their territorial waters“. Turkey maintains that “islands do not automatically have the right to a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone“. Turkey rejects the very existence of EEZ and continental shelf rights of the Greek Islands and Cyprus. In addition, the Director General of Maritime and Border Affairs of Turkey, Ambassador CaÄŸatay Erciyes, made a distinction between the existence of maritime law and the delimitation of borders to support Turkey’s border claim. He argued that “Eligibility and delineation are not the same thing. Islands can obtain a zero or reduced EEZ / CS if their presence distorts the equitable delimitation. Turkey’s position therefore appears to be that the Greek Islands and Cyprus are not entitled to continental shelf and EEZ rights. And even if these islands were entitled to rights on the continental shelf, these rights should not be applied in the delimitation of the borders.

For Greece and Cyprus, Turkey’s position is equivalent to a rejection of the very existence of Greek and Cypriot rights over the continental shelf. Article 121 (2) of UNCLOS, the judgments of the ICJ (Qatar v. Bahrain, ICJ 2001; Nicaragua v. Colombia, ICJ 2012) and the practice of states in delimiting borders, however, explicitly recognize the existence of EEZs and rights on the continental shelf of islands capable of human habitation and give varying effects to their rights in terms of delimitation of borders. Regarding the rights on the Greek and Cypriot continental shelves, Turkey’s legal position is most substantially opposed to the law of the sea. Moreover, by disregarding the maritime rights of Cyprus, Turkey ignores the rights not only inhabited islands, but also an internationally recognized sovereign state. Cyprus, like other island states such as the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, obviously has rights over the EEZ and the continental shelf, although Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus.

Unless Turkey is willing to meaningfully recognize the fundamental existence of Greece’s rights to the continental shelf, the prospects for genuine negotiations on border demarcation are bleak. No compromise is possible between the position that Greece’s continental shelf rights should play a role in delimitation and Turkey’s current position that these rights can be ignored. A possible Turkish recognition of the existence of the rights of the Greek islands would not settle the disputes: Turkey and Greece would still have divergent positions on the appropriate method of delimiting the borders, and Turkey also continues to reject direct negotiations with the Republic of Cyprus. However, the recognition of the fundamental existence of the rights of Greece and Cyprus on the continental shelves would constitute a necessary first step to the opening of any negotiations on the borders.

Practical arrangements to reduce the risk of escalation and build confidence.

A clarification of Turkey’s position could be the starting point for real negotiations on the delimitation of the borders. In addition, the parties should consider implementing practical measures that reduce the risks of escalation, build confidence and contribute to stability.

First, Greece and Turkey should consider a freeze on naval operations, in particular a freeze on naval escorts for seismic and exploratory activities. Serious incidents between Greek and Turkish naval vesselstook place against the backdrop of Turkey’s unilateral exploratory activities in contentious areas. Naval Seismic Research Escorts have particular escalation potential because Naval Seismic Research Escorts closely link contested claims, resources and naval operations.

Second, the parties should consider relying on NATO mediation deconfliction mechanism. A central rationale for specifying crisis communication procedures is to disrupt a dangerous trend: the higher the tensions between adversaries, the more difficult it is to establish direct communication. Experience in crisis communication in the East and South China Sea the disputes suggest the following characteristic about these mechanisms. To be effective in a crisis, it is imperative that the respective bureaucratic actors (i.e. defense ministries or national security councils) to which a hotline connects have decision-making power in the event of a crisis. within their respective governments, in particular the power to lead the armed forces. . To establish how the use of a hotline mechanism would play out in an emergency scenario within either government, it would be useful for each party to simulate the use of the hotline. A simulation could show if and where each party has gaps in decision-making in a crisis The availability of the option (not the guarantee) to disrupt an escalation cycle makes crisis communication mechanisms a priority. useful option for contested maritime areas, not only in the eastern Mediterranean. or South China Sea, but potentially also in the Persian Gulf.

Third, a post-incident review mechanism would be a useful military confidence-building measure. This mechanism would consist of a structured bilateral dialogue that reviews incidents in a timely manner. Consultations would allow Greece and Turkey to learn about each party’s perceptions and assessments of particular actions during an incident. Both parties could thus reduce the risk of misperception of possible future incidents. In addition, a post-incident review mechanism could also help “overcome” escalation episodes and prevent the emergence of long-lasting grievances.

Goodwill gestures and a broader diplomatic process

The options offered here suggest practical, progressive and concrete steps that could result in three things: a basis for negotiations on border demarcation, reduced risks of escalation, and confidence in the willingness of the parties to negotiate constructively. These options alone cannot resolve maritime boundary disputes in a comprehensive manner; the delimitation of borders in the eastern Mediterranean is a complex issue and will require a longer process taking into account other issues. Ideally, these proposals would therefore lead to a broader diplomatic process. Once confidence is rebuilt, a Multilateral Conference for the Eastern Mediterranean could provide a forum where Turkey can express its envisaged role in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, including energy projects. A real effort to find common ground on maritime borders and concrete energy projects requires a signal of goodwill from Turkey. Recognizing that Greece is, in principle, entitled to continental shelf rights could represent such a gesture of constructive goodwill.

The opinions expressed above represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The aim of the ELN is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to meet the urgent foreign, defense and security policy challenges of our time.

Picture: Courtesy of NASA MODIS rapid response, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.


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