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Towards a New Delimitation of Maritime Borders ? The Greek-Turkish Conflict (Part I)

Written by Virginie de France

On 1 and 2 October, European leaders will come together in Brussels for an extraordinary European Council convened by European Council president Charles Michel to address among other agenda items, the situation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Over the past months, tensions were mounting in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea caused by what appeared to be rivalry over energy resources between Turkey and Greece (Marcus, 2020). Nonetheless tensions aggravated and are now causing concern in the European Union. Indeed, the eastern Mediterranean Sea is of strategic importance for peace, stability and economic development between the EU and the other countries in the region.

Despite being military allies in NATO, relations between Greece and its Turkish neighbour are tense, with historically recurrent territorial disputes and more recently over Syrian migrants freely crossing Turkey to enter the EU illegally through the Greek border.

In recent weeks, tensions escalated significantly because of Turkey's territorial claims and unilateral actions in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, to reach underwater fossil energy resources on the Greek continental shelf. These events occurred after a controversial Maritime Delimitation Agreement on November 27th 2019, concluded between Turkish President Erdoğan and the Libyan National Accord Government (NAG) allowed Ankara to extend its territorial waters area significantly (+30% of its continental shelf).

This creates a political problem because the new territory over which Turkey claims sovereignty is part of the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Cyprus and Greece. Many countries have directly denounced this agreement, declaring it illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, Turkey is only a signatory to the Convention and not a state party. The term “signatory” refers to a State that is in political support of a treaty and willing to continue its engagement with the treaty process but for whom the Convention has not necessarily entered into force (Article 2(1)(f) Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (“VCLT”)). According to article 18 VCLT, a signatory State is obliged to act in good faith, and thus “not to defeat the object and purpose” of the treaty. Conversely, the term “party” refers to a State that gives its explicit consent to be bound legally by the treaty and in respect of which this Convention is in force (article 2(1)(g) VCLT). This explicit consent generally is in the form of an instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval, or accession. It is only if all the formal requirements are met and the instrument is accepted that the State officially becomes a party to the treaty.

This refusal to accede is essentially linked to the close proximity of Greek islands with the Turkish Eastern Mediterranean Coast. For the record, UNCLOS enshrines the principle that permanent islands are sources of EEZs. Conversely, according to its own national vision, Turkey considers that EEZs can only be projected by continental coasts.

Since this agreement with the NAG, pressure mounted within the international community. Stakes are high as the region seems to contain large underwater quantities of natural gas. Moreover, this agreement would have the effect of de facto interrupting the EastMed gas pipeline project (January 2019) carried by Greece, Israel and Egypt to funnel eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe. This NAG agreement would allow Turkey to veto the transit.

At the moment the EU’s framework in military matters is not developed enough to tackle the problem in a collective way- France tends to want to go to the front while Germany continues to favour diplomacy.

To concretize this agreement, Turkey announced in May 2020 a drilling program in its new self-proclaimed EEZ. According to Devlet Bahceli, President of the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party, it is unthinkable that Turkey would renounce its interests in the Mediterranean and the Aegean Seas (Sahin, 2020). The Turkish state’s intent is on making this territory its "regional energy hub". Now, despite numerous EU requests to stop marine geophysical exploration in the Mediterranean, on 10 August 2020 Turkey decided to send the research ship “Oruç Reis”, accompanied by 17 military ships, into Greek waters.

At the moment the EU’s framework in military matters is not developed enough to tackle the problem in a collective way- France tends to want to go to the front while Germany continues to favour diplomacy. Nevertheless, there is common position on the legal front as all EU MSs agree on the fact Turkey’s behaviour is unacceptable insofar it breaches international law and constitutes a threat to international security and peace. Therefore, the EU is adamant on the need to take joint action at European level.

According to Stéphane Audrand, a consultant specialized in risk management, arms trade control and human rights issues, it is extremely important that the EU does not delay acting with a common voice: "The credibility of the whole European edifice is at stake, which cannot afford any country, even if it is a member of the Atlantic Alliance, to undermine the sovereignty of the European Member States, itself being based on universal principles of international law". Therefore, this conflict extends well beyond the gas issue, as the future of the European Union "as a political entity capable of defending the integrity of its members depends on it".

There is also a shared EU concern that a new military escalation is taking place. As a matter of fact, when strategic issues of energetic nature are at stake, the outbreak of hostilities is not a scenario to rule out.

Aware of the dangers, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, decided to bring together the 27 Member States on the 1st and 2nd of October. In a resolution on the preparation of the Extraordinary European Council, the European Parliament expressed its highest concern about the risk posed by the situation. It condemned Turkey's activities on the continental shelf EEZ of Greece and Cyprus and considered that the search for a solution must necessarily involve diplomacy, mediation and the Rule of Law. Despite the insistence on negotiation, restrictive measures in response to Turkey's drilling activities have already been implemented and further sanctions adopted during this European Council Meeting are not to be ruled out.

The first part of this article aimed to present the situation and the challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean. As we have seen, the risks have increased substantially. In the next part of this article, an analysis of what was discussed and decided during the extraordinary European summit will be offered. This article will be marked by both a geopolitical and a legal approach, both of which are necessary to understand and explain the political behaviour of the parties.


Sources: J. MARCUS, "The eastern Mediterranean tinderbox : Why Greek-Turkish rivalries have expanded", BBC, 25 august 2020. S. SAHIN, "Unthinkable for Turkey to give up Aegean", East Med, AA 100 years, 29 August 2020.

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