A Hellenic Navy frigate is seen with a helicopter on its deck during a naval exercise earlier this year.
Remarks by Nikos Kotzias during the handover ceremony at the Greek Foreign Ministry last month, when the departing minister said that Athens had plans for the extension of its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea coupled with straight baseline delimitations (or bay-closing lines), generated many reactions and articles on the issues of maritime borders and the continental shelf/exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Reactions took issue with the motives behind the planned measures and their likely consequences, as well as the timing of the announcement.
Greece established the extent of its territorial sea at 6 nautical miles in 1936. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was ratified by the Greek Parliament in 1995, allows Greece to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles.
Extending a state’s territorial waters is a unilateral act. This is commonly preceded by consultation (certainly a wise practice) between neighboring states in order to take into account any possible disagreements and sidestep disputes that would stop a state from recognizing the maritime border extension declared by the other.
With regard to the issue raised by Kotzias, no objections would be put forward by Italy, which has already applied the 12-mile rule. Furthermore, Greece and Italy signed an agreement on the delimitation of the respective continental shelf areas in 1977. Albania would also raise no objections as it has extended its territorial waters to 9 miles.
Turkey however strongly objects to Greece extending its territorial waters in the Aegean. The Turkish argument is that due to the large number of Greek islands, applying the 12-mile rule would turn the Aegean into a “Greek lake,” effectively forcing Turkish ships to pass through Greek territorial waters to access the Mediterranean.
Such a move would essentially also compromise Turkey’s ability to lay claim to a significant part of the continental shelf, as Greece’s large eastern Aegean islands would obstruct Turkish claims on their western side.
Greece’s official position is that it reserves the right to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles in the Aegean, but it refrains from exercising it (nevertheless, the frequent repetition of this position, even if it is uttered in response to Turkish statements, raises concerns in Ankara that Athens is preparing for a move).
The statement that Greece is preparing to extend its territorial waters in the Ionian met with criticism from the Greek opposition, which decried the move as incomplete, adding that it would mean giving up our Aegean rights. At the same time, Turkey’s reaction was in a different direction as it warned that it will not tolerate a corresponding extension in the Aegean.
It is true that for decades Greek governments refrained from extending territorial waters in the Ionian Sea on the grounds that it could be interpreted as relinquishing similar rights in the Aegean. However, there was no vital interest mandating an extension of territorial seas in the Ionian other than the expansion of national sovereignty.
Every sea territory has its own characteristics, which justify or warrant different solutions. The government’s current intention of applying the 12-mile rule in the Ionian derives from a Greek need to extend its territorial waters in view of the final delineation of the continental shelf or EEZ with Albania.
It is also legal in terms of international law to close off bays with straight baseline delimitations that facilitate navigation, aligning a country’s maritime borders. However, straight baseline delimitations expand territorial waters and they could as a result be deemed by Turkey as a unilateral act that changes the status quo – if only to a limited extent – to its detriment.
It should be noted that in international practice, when two states are delineating the continental shelf, they often do not take straight baselines into account in cases where one of them has not agreed to them.
Defining the final breadth of territorial waters in the Aegean is a precondition for launching negotiations to delineate the continental shelf between the two countries. Turkey does not accept that the concept of the exclusive economic zone would ever substitute the concept of the continental shelf.
If Greece and Turkey began negotiations to delineate the continental shelf on the basis of the existing 6-mile boundaries in the Aegean, a possible deal would undermine efforts to extend territorial seas to 12 miles. On the other hand, establishing a 12-mile boundary meets with Turkey’s firm opposition.
As a result, Greece is faced with two options: It can either accept a compromise on the areas where the territorial waters will be extended, and perhaps on the exact number of miles, or choose to leave loose ends down the line.
The first option has informally been discussed for many years but without resulting in a final settlement, in the sense that the two states would proceed with a unilateral extension having accepted that they would not react to each other’s act.
The other option is to leave the issue unresolved, with all the consequences that perpetuating the dispute would have on regional peace. Politically speaking, it is the easier option. But it does little in the direction of normalizing Greek-Turkish relations.
That is not to say that negotiations to delineate the Aegean continental shelf would be easy. But at least in the past there was an informal understanding between Turkey and Greece that any remaining differences after a negotiation would be referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
That should please us to the degree that international law, which we so often invoke, is on our side. For these developments to come to fruition, the Greek public – steadily fed with Turkey-bashing, justified or not – must be prepared. A similar mood must, of course, also prevail in Turkey.
Pavlos Apostolidis is ambassador (AH), former director of Greece’s National Intelligence Agency and former minister of the Administrative Reform and e-Governance Ministry.