Between 1974 and 2019, we had three major crises in Greek-Turkish relations. The shortest was the Imia standoff on January 30, 1996. It lasted 24 hours. The crisis of March 1987 lasted for about four days. The lengthiest crisis erupted when Turkey sent out the seismic survey ship Sismik in 1976. That crisis went on for 18 days (the survey began on July 29 but the Sismik was inside Greece’s continental shelf from August 6 to 15). This means that the latest crisis surrounding the presence of the Oruc Reis exploration vessel escorted by Turkish naval units in the Greek continental shelf is the lengthiest by far.
Furthermore, there are no signs of a de-escalation anytime soon. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems upset at the signing and ensuing ratification of the maritime boundaries agreement between Greece and Egypt. He appears desperate to score a point before withdrawing his ships. The end date of Turkey’s latest navigational advisory, or navtex, coincides with the deadline of an application by Turkish Petroleum (TPAO) for an exploration permit in the sea area demarcated by the Turkey-Libya memorandum. Erdogan might be tempted to proceed with such a move before de-escalating.
In any case, at some point sooner or later there will be talks between the two sides. The Greek side wants to return to the tried method of exploratory talks, like those held from 2002 to 2016. It’s not certain that Turkey would agree to that. But the agenda of any exploratory talks requires caution. Particularly in the 2002-04, 2009-13 and 2015-16 periods, the main issue on the agenda was the limited extension of Greek territorial waters in certain areas as a condition for a joint referral to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for the delimitation of the continental shelf.
The extension of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles is Greece’s most powerful diplomatic tool. It is recognized without exceptions (for example on closed or semi-enclosed seas, as has been falsely claimed) by Article 15 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It has been exercised by all other states around the world in a uniform and absolute way.
It is first of all wrong to pursue an agreement with another state on a right that can be exercised unilaterally. It is one thing to inform or even facilitate another state (not only Turkey) with regard to international navigation in the Aegean Sea, but it’s quite another to enter a negotiation with the aim of securing Turkey’s consent/agreement to an extension of Greek territorial waters.
Holding negotiations would be wrong, even from the perspective of those who believe that Greece must not expand its territorial waters in the Aegean to 12 miles. Following the limited extension of Greece’s territorial waters (which was based on prior agreement), it is in the interest of Turkey to immediately take the issue of continental shelf demarcation to the ICJ because:
– It would avert the extension of Greek territorial waters in the areas of Turkish interest.
– It would pave the way for Eastern Aegean areas remaining outside Greek territorial waters to be more or less handed to Turkey upon delimitation by the court.
Furthermore, assuming that Greece makes a limited extension of its territorial waters and then Turkey goes on to accept referral to the ICJ for continental shelf delimitation, a basic question remains: How can one be certain that Turkey would not make an issue of purported “gray zones” before the court (thereby challenging Greek sovereignty over some of the islands used as a baseline for measuring the breadth of the continental shelf)? Finally, what would happen if, right after a court settlement, Turkey were to raise an issue such as, for example, the demilitarization of eastern Aegean islands?
It is clear that any decision by Greece to not extend all of its territorial waters to 12 miles, but to leave out certain open sea areas, would be of major significance and in the interest of Turkey in many ways. As a result, Greece must negotiate trade-offs for this important move and connect them to the sum of the issues raised by Turkey in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean – and not just with the continental shelf delimitation by the ICJ. In any other case, it would lose its major bargaining chip and remain exposed in terms of many other issues that have been made up by Turkey over the years.