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Commentary | 21 May 2021

Charting a peaceful course for the Eastern Mediterranean Sea Disputes

Europe International Law Turkey Euro-Atlantic Security

Turkish unilateral exploratory activities and navy escorts have triggered a round of incidents and (near-) collisions with Greece in disputed areas of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in 2019 and 2020. Meanwhile, direct talks between Greece and Turkey about maritime boundary disputes have been blocked for five years now. Further obstacles to direct talks have stemmed from disagreements over the Turkey-Libya Memorandum of Understanding and the Egypt-Greece boundary agreement, and by conflicting preferences regarding the scope of negotiations. The decision of Greece and Turkey to resume exploratory negotiations, “talks about talks”, about their disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean may therefore offer an opportunity to de-escalate the disputes and to steer Greece’s as well as the EU’s relations with Turkey away from confrontation.

For pragmatic talks to make a difference in a tense geopolitical context though, concrete steps are essential. First, Turkey should consider clarifying its position regarding the existence of Greek and Cypriot maritime entitlements as an essential first step. Second, practical de-confliction arrangements are needed to prevent incidents and to build confidence between the parties, building on the Greece-Turkey hotline mediated by NATO in October 2020. Without concrete progress, tensions risk to flare up again.

Turkey’s position regarding Greece’s maritime entitlements: the need for clarification

Turkey has detailed its position regarding claims and sea boundaries in various letters to the UN. Yet, there is still a fundamental question over whether Turkey accepts the very existence of Greek and Cypriot continental shelf entitlements in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and whether it is at all prepared to give effect to Greek and Cypriot entitlements in boundary delimitation. This issue looms large in the disputes. The relationship between the existence of maritime entitlements and sea boundary delimitation is politically and legally fundamental to the settlement of maritime boundary disputes. This relationship was clarified in the North Sea Continental Shelf Case and applied in the South China Sea Arbitration: Only where maritime entitlements overlap does the question of sea boundary delimitation arise. Therefore, where one state rejects the existence of maritime entitlements of another state, there is little room for a negotiated compromise on maritime boundaries. It is hard to see how genuine negotiations between Greece and Turkey on sea boundary delimitation could start off without the mutual acknowledgment of the basic existence of overlapping continental shelf rights. Greece and Cyprus acknowledge that Turkey is, in principle, entitled to an EEZ and continental shelf by claiming a median line as a maritime boundary even if this claim maximizes their maritime zones in the given geographic circumstances. Turkey’s boundary claim, however, does not acknowledge the very existence of Greek and Cypriot continental shelf entitlements.

To vindicate its claimed maritime boundary in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, Turkey states that “islands which lie on the wrong side of the median line between two mainlands cannot create maritime jurisdiction areas beyond their territorial waters”. Turkey maintains that “islands are not automatically entitled to a continental shelf and exclusive economic zone”. Turkey rejects the very existence of EEZ and continental shelf entitlements of Greek islands and Cyprus. Moreover, Turkey’s Director General for Maritime and Border Affairs, Ambassador Çağatay Erciyes, distinguished between the existence of maritime entitlement and boundary delimitation to support Turkey’s boundary claim. He argued that “Entitlement & Delimitation are not the same thing. Islands may get zero or reduced EEZ/CS if their presence distorts equitable delimitation.” Turkey’s position appears hence to be that Greek islands and Cyprus are not entitled to continental shelf and EEZ rights. And even if these islands were entitled to continental shelf rights, these rights should not be given effect in boundary delimitation.

For Greece and Cyprus, Turkey’s position is tantamount to a rejection of the very existence of Greek and Cypriot continental shelf entitlements. Article 121 (2) of UNCLOS, judgements of the ICJ (Qatar v. Bahrain, ICJ 2001; Nicaragua v. Colombia, ICJ 2012) and state practice in boundary delimitation, however, explicitly recognise the existence of EEZ and continental shelf entitlements of islands capable of human habitation and give varying effects to their entitlements in boundary delimitation. On Greek and Cypriot continental shelf entitlements, Turkey’s legal position is most substantively in contrast with the law of the sea. Moreover, by disregarding the maritime entitlements of Cyprus, Turkey ignores the entitlements not only of inhabited islands, but of an internationally recognised sovereign state. Cyprus, like other island states such as the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, has most evidently EEZ and continental shelf entitlements even if Turkey does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus.

Unless Turkey is willing to recognise the basic existence of continental shelf entitlements of Greece in a meaningful way, the prospects for genuine negotiations on boundary delimitation are bleak. No compromise is possible between the position that the continental shelf entitlements of Greece should play a role in delimitation and Turkey’s current position that these entitlements can be disregarded. A potential Turkish acknowledgement of the existence of entitlements of Greek islands would not settle the disputes: Turkey and Greece would still have greatly diverging positions on the appropriate method of boundary delimitation, and Turkey also continues to reject direct negotiations with the Republic of Cyprus. An acknowledgement of the basic existence of Greek and Cypriot continental shelf entitlements, however, would constitute a necessary first step for any boundary negotiations to begin.

Practical arrangements to reduce escalation risks and to build confidence.

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

First, Greece and Turkey should consider a freeze of navy operations, especially a freeze of navy escorts for seismic and exploratory activities. Serious incidents between Greek and Turkish navy vesselsoccurred in the context of unilateral exploratory activities of Turkey in disputed areas. Navy escorts of seismic research activities have a particular escalatory potential because navy escorts for seismic research establish a close link between disputed claims, resources and navy operations.

Second, the parties should consider building on the NATO-mediated de-confliction mechanism. A central rational for specifying crisis communication procedures is to disrupt a dangerous tendency: the higher the tensions between opponents, the more difficult to establish direct communication. Experience with crisis communication in the East and South China Sea disputes suggest the following characteristic about such mechanisms. To be effective in a crisis, it is imperative that the respective bureaucratic actors (i.e., the Ministries of Defence or National Security Councils) that a hotline connects have crisis decision-making authority within their respective governments, especially the authority to direct 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 side to simulate the use of the hotline. A simulation could show whether and where each side has gaps in crisis decision-making.The availability of the option (not the guarantee) to disrupt an escalatory cycle makes crisis communication mechanisms a useful option for contested maritime spaces not only in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea or South China Sea, but potentially also in the Persian Gulf.

Third, a useful military confidence-building measure would be a post-incident review mechanism. 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 side’s perceptions and assessments of particular actions during an incident. Both sides could thereby reduce risks of misperception in eventual future incidents. Moreover, a post-incident review mechanism might also help to “get over” episodes of escalation and forestall the emergence of lasting grievances.

Gestures of goodwill and a broader diplomatic process

The options proposed here suggest practical, incremental and concrete steps that could bring about three things: a basis for negotiations on boundary delimitation, a reduction of escalation risks and confidence in the willingness of the parties to negotiate constructively. These options by themselves cannot resolve the sea boundary disputes in a comprehensive way; boundary delimitation in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea is a complex question and will require a longer process that takes into consideration further issues.  Ideally, these proposals would therefore lead to a broader diplomatic process. Once confidence is re-built, a Multilateral Conference for the Eastern Mediterranean could offer a forum where Turkey can voice its envisioned role in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, including in energy projects. A genuine effort to find common ground on sea boundaries and concrete energy projects requires a signal of Turkey’s goodwill. A recognition that Greece is, in principle, entitled to continental shelf rights could represent such a gesture of constructive goodwill.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image: NASA courtesy MODIS Rapid Response, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.