Athens, Greece – On Monday, neighbours Greece and Turkey will begin exploratory talks in Istanbul – after a five-year hiatus – that aim to settle maritime boundaries, a source of alarming friction during the past year.
Last week, Greece doubled its western territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) – the maximum allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
The law added 13,000 square kilometres to Greece’s sovereign domain – equivalent to 10 percent of its land.
“The extension of territorial waters westward inevitably sends a message to the East,” said Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in parliament on Wednesday.
“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 were on the verge of military confrontation last August, after Turkey launched its seismic survey ship Oruc Reis accompanied by a small naval fleet to explore for undersea oil and gas in Eastern Mediterranean waters which Greece claims as part of its continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but which Turkey disputes.
Although these zones do not entail absolute the sovereignty that territorial waters do, they allow coastal states to exercise sovereign rights of exploration and exploitation of mineral and living resources.
The possibility of conflict has alarmed both NATO, in which Greece and Turkey are members, and the European Union.
“In talks with Greece, we hope that issues will be dealt with within the framework of rights, law and equity, and that solutions are found,” Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Saturday.
The talks starting on Monday are informal and non-binding, but could eventually produce a formal process of negotiation resulting in a treaty, or an agreement to seek arbitration at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
If neither happens, Greek-Turkish tensions will remain – with potentially dire consequences.
What’s on the agenda?
Greece has always maintained 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 the EEZ.
Greece’s thousands of islands in the Aegean – some of which lie just a few kilometres off the Turkish coast – would give it sovereignty over 71.5 percent of the sea against Turkey’s 8.7 percent 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 EEZ for islands.
It does not argue with the rights of islands to territorial waters, but objects to the 12nm distance, and has threatened Greece with military action should it exercise its rights under the UNCLOS.
Talks on Monday are further complicated by the fact that Athens and Ankara disagree on what should be discussed.
Turkey wants a broad agenda that includes discussing 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 most of 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 the UNCLOS.
“Both sides will have to show flexibility on the agenda,” Panayotis Ioakimidis, Professor of International and European Studies at the University of Athens, told Al Jazeera.
“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,” he said.
Ioakimidis said the main subject of earlier talks was territorial waters, not the EEZ and continental shelf. Greece and Turkey held 60 rounds of talks between 2002 and 2016.
“In fact, we had reached something close to an agreement,” he said.
A senior Greek diplomatic source confirmed 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 told Al Jazeera.
UNCLOS notwithstanding, Ioakimidis 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 said, and that Turkey 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, defined by the Treaty of Lausanne.
“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 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.
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 – a naval expansion doctrine – 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,” – particularly as Turkey has limited hydrocarbon resources, said Can Erimtan, an independent historian and geopolitical commentator.
If neither government can reach a compromise, the only peaceable 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 Ioakimidis.
Some Greek politicians say Greece should extend its agenda and use this crisis to resolve all its differences with Turkey – including over the divided island of Cyprus.
Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, in response to a Greek-inspired coup on the island. Greek Cypriots now live in the Republic of Cyprus in the south of the island, while Turkish-Cypriots live in a northern enclave still occupied by Turkish troops.
Greece and Cyprus sought EU sanctions against Turkey in October, in retaliation for Turkish exploration for oil and gas off the coast of Cyprus.
“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?” said opposition Syriza MP Nikos Voutsis on January 20.
Turkey has isolated itself diplomatically through recent military interventions in Syria and Libya, and support to Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia in the Caucasus, and by violating Greek airspace and encroaching on the Greek and Cypriot EEZs.
Recently elected US President Joe Biden is less friendly than his predecessor towards Erdogan, and the ailing Turkish economy needs greater access to the stable EU market.
“Turkey … wants rapprochement with the EU, but cannot do so without rapprochement with Greece,” says Ioakimidis.
Erdogan, who has been fiercely critical of the EU’s stance on the Eastern Mediterranean in the past, told EU ambassadors in Ankara this month he was ready to improve ties.
Turkey’s jostling for space in the region 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 signed agreements demarcating maritime EEZs with Italy and Egypt.
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 waters south and east of Crete.
Greece is under pressure for other reasons, too. 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 – and the deadline is March 2021.
Perhaps the economic prospects in the region and the drain created by defence spending, as well as the continued threat of armed confrontation, will finally push Greece and Turkey to a bold political agreement, or at least a legal arbitration.
“Violence does not produce legal results,” Mitsotakis said in parliament, “but the law does produce peace.”