Greece and Turkey set for showdown over maritime borders

Turkey is laying claim to oil exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, and Greece objects.

Turkey oil petrol - reuters
Turkey has been left behind by the boom in oil discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean [File photo: Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Athens, Greece – 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, following Ankara’s announcement 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 (EEZ) meeting midway across the Mediterranean, over an area also claimed by Greece.

“I shall put to President Erdogan all the issues relating to Turkish provocation,” Mitsotakis told his colleagues. “We will talk openly. And it is in Turkey’s interest to retrench from provocative moves.”

Erdogan was unrelenting: “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.

Fishing for hydrocarbons

“This agreement has been in the works since my days,” Dora Bakoyanni – foreign minister from 2004 to 2009 – told Skai radio on Tuesday. “The Egyptians were always hesitant to sign it because they feared what the Turkish reaction would be.”

In 2004, Turkey proposed an EEZ delineation with Egypt similar to that agreed with Libya – a line bisecting the Mediterranean, ignoring Cyprus, which lies between them. Egypt, which had agreed upon 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.

Egypt had long been thought to be the only eastern Mediterranean nation with significant hydrocarbon resources. But in 1999, Israel discovered two small fields, Noa and Mari-B. Since then, Israel has discovered more than 35 trillion cubic feet (about one trillion cubic metres) of gas, enough to power the country for a century, and is now an energy exporter.

Egypt, meanwhile, became energy self-sufficient at the end of 2018, thanks to the discovery of the Zohr gas field, doing away with three billion dollars in annual gas purchases.

Cyprus has also discovered at least three major fields, while Greece last month ratified exploration concessions for Exxon and Hellenic Petroleum to explore a large area off western Crete, believed to contain large quantities of gas.


All at sea

The United States Geological Survey estimates that the Eastern Mediterranean could ultimately yield 350 trillion cubic feet (about 10 trillion cubic metres) of gas and 3.5 billion barrels of oil. That is enough to power the region for decades.

But Turkey seems to have been left out of this bonanza. Although it has spent more than a billion dollars on exploration vessels in the past decade, 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.

Greece and Turkey have never agreed on the delineation of their EEZ, their territorial waters or airspace. 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.

NATO has generally 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 said.

Greece’s foreign ministry has summoned Libya’s ambassador, demanding he “immediately divulge the contents of the agreement, or the decision will be made to deport him”. 

Source: Al Jazeera