Greek MPs approve extension of territorial waters in Ionian Sea

The move comes days before Greece and Turkey resume exploratory talks over contested maritime claims in the Aegean Sea.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis says Greece's discussions with Turkey were expected to resume at the point where they were interrupted in 2016 [File: Costas Baltas/Reuters]

The Greek Parliament has overwhelmingly approved legislation to extend the country’s territorial waters along its western coastline from six to 12 nautical miles, a few days before long-estranged NATO allies Greece and Turkey resume exploratory talks over contested maritime claims in the Aegean Sea.

In Wednesday’s 284-0 vote, representatives of four opposition parties backed the centre-right government, while members of the Greek Communist Party abstained.

Greece’s western coastline in the Ionian Sea faces Italy and borders Albania at its northern tip. The expansion does not directly affect an ongoing maritime boundary dispute with Turkey to the east, but Greece says it underscores the country’s right to implement the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which set the 12-nautical mile limit in 1982.

“It’s a clear message to those who are trying to deprive our country of this right,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Parliament.

Neighbouring Turkey is among a minority of nations that have not signed the Law of the Sea. It says an extension of Greece’s territorial waters eastward would be a “casus belli”, or cause for war. In 1995, the Turkish Parliament said it would interpret such an extension as a reason for declaring war.

Relations between Greece and Turkey have entered a difficult and confrontational phase. The two countries have long been at odds over sea boundaries and mineral rights in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean in a dispute that caused a tense military standoff last year.

Under pressure from Western allies, Ankara and Athens will resume talks aimed at reducing tensions on January 25, restarting a process that was suspended five years ago.

“We will attend with optimism, self-confidence,” Mitsotakis said, but there would be “zero naivety” from Athens about the talks, which were unofficial and non-binding. “There will be no discussion on national sovereignty,” the prime minister said.

Ankara and Athens held 60 rounds of talks from 2002 to 2016 but plans last year for a resumption foundered over a survey vessel that Turkey sent into disputed waters and disagreements over topics to be covered.

The latter issue remains unresolved, as Greece only wants to address the demarcation of maritime zones in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey says all issues should be tackled, including air space and the status of some islands on the Aegean Sea.

“It is not right to pick one of those [issues] and say ‘we’re holding exploratory talks’,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said earlier this week, criticising Greece’s approach as non-constructive.

Mitsotakis told Parliament if the two sides failed to reach an agreement, they should at least agree on the way the dispute could be referred to an international judicial body.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasised the need to “make the eastern Mediterranean a basin of cooperation that will serve our long-term interests, rather than an area of competition”.

Before drafting the bill on the Ionian Sea, which extends the country’s limits for the first time since 1947, Greece held negotiations with its regional neighbours, Italy and Albania.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies