The Erdogan-Sarraj agreement on the “delimitation” of maritime jurisdictions between Turkey and Libya, in violation of international law, is not an unexpected development. It is not something outside the possible scenarios that Greece has always considered.
After all, on November 13, 2019, Turkey’s permanent representative to the United Nations, in a letter to the secretary-general, presented the Turkish perceptions on the delimitation of maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean. There are some interesting nuances present in this document. Of course, Turkey presents its own perception on the outer limits of the continental shelf, on which coastal states exercise sovereign rights ipso facto and ab initio (this element is the main contribution of the concept of continental shelf in the debate concerning maritime zones).
However, Turkey also accepts that the exclusive economic zone must be defined at the same time. It also accepts, as a rule of reference, the current international law of the sea, and although it is not part of the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, Turkey concludes that the treaty registers rules of customary law, processed by the case law of international judicial bodies. It reiterates, of course, that the delimitation should be based on the principle of equity and not on the median line/equidistance principle. It emphasizes that the delimitation must be achieved by agreement between adjacent or opposite states, obviously knowing that if this is not achieved, the process provided for by international law is the judicial or arbitral delimitation.
It should be noted here that Greece, under Law 4001/2011, defined the outer limits of the continental shelf and its exclusive economic zone on the basis of the median line/equidistance principle and the full effect of the islands as provided by the international law of the sea.
The Turkish letter to the UN might allow us to identify not only the “outer limits” of the continental shelf according to Turkey’s perception, but also the “outer limits” of its political and diplomatic behavior. Turkey is obviously aware of the provisions of the current international law of the sea, it is blatantly violating it in the case of the agreement with Fayez al-Sarraj, attempting to create a fait accompli, while simultaneously calling all countries involved – including Greece – to negotiate and “winking” at Egypt, proposing a bilateral agreement to the detriment of Greek sovereign rights and contrary to international law. It is also linking the participation of the Republic of Cyprus in the package of delimitation agreements with the achievement of a comprehensive political solution to the Cyprus issue.
Turkey knows that the situation in Syria is one thing, and the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean in relation to the delimitation of maritime zones is another. International reactions and tolerance have a different impact. Despite the political weakness of the European Union and the strategic uncertainty (including the role of NATO) caused to the West by US President Donald Trump’s politics and overall tone, the Turkish political leadership cannot underestimate the fact that Greece is a member of the EU and NATO. Neither can it underestimate the fact that Israel and Egypt are organized countries with a strong military status, nor the fact that the stance of Russia is obviously different from that demonstrated in the case of Syria.
This framework allows us to some extent to assess the Greek and Turkish leaders’ meeting of December 4, 2019. During the last 45 years, bilateral summits have usually solved crises and relieved tensions. They are made at the end of a series of events and in the context of the general perception that there is a moratorium between the two sides that is confirmed without touching the core of the problem. Because this meeting took place in the “positioning” phase in the broader frame of the Mediterranean, our view must be strategically deeper – at first strategically calm, without showing any complacency, without having the luxury of being able to overlook any element that contributes to the full awareness of the situation on the field.
Such an approach should, as far as possible, be free of generic and banal rhetorics, other than the austere and legally accurate declarations necessary to protect the sovereignty and the sovereign rights of the country according to international law.
Given that the discussion is about the Mediterranean and not just the Aegean Sea, the connection between Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus issue – which is of course an international issue involving invasion and occupation – is more obvious, but it also entails a very critical facet related to the delimitation of maritime zones. However, the debate on the delimitation must also concern at the same time the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and the entire length of the coastline – mainland and insular, indiscriminately – of each country.
The fundamental prerequisite for all major issues of foreign policy, defense and security is the existence of a clearly defined national framework. It does not suffice that this framework just receives the broadest consensus possible; it must be completely free of the conveniences and charms of national populism. In other words, it must be truly patriotic, based on truth – the only thing that is national, to honor the legacy of Dionysios Solomos. The basis for a fair and viable solution to the Cyprus issue lies within the Greek-Cypriot community, within its own will and desire. The basis for a modern and effective national strategy concerning Greek-Turkish relations lies within Greek society, within its own will and desire, within the conscience of historical and national responsibility and the duty toward truth of not just the political system, but of all the shapers of popular sovereignty.
A serious discussion about such matters just before celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence should have a starting point at the responsible evaluation of the historical time that has passed in between. Over the last 45 years, since 1974, has time worked in favor of national interests and the preservation of an adequate status quo in Cyprus and in Greek-Turkish relations, or should our relationship with time be reconsidered? I think it needs to be reconsidered. Further delays do not help.
The second question concerns our relationship with Europe. Turkey’s European perspective is no longer an important parameter, nor does it offer a strategic framework for Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus issue. It is therefore our obligation to make a more complex and pragmatic assessment of the context of these issues.
The third question refers to our perception of international law and international justice. It is not enough for a nation to believe in the legitimacy of its positions under international law. It must be able to protect its national interests by invoking international law. The common national position of the post-junta period (known in Greek as the Metapolitefsi) was, in the words of both Konstantinos Karamanlis and Andreas Papandreou, that Greece recognizes the existence of a dispute with Turkey, the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Aegean by appealing to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
We could more accurately say that Greece recognizes the existence of a dispute with Turkey, the delimitation of the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean by appealing to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Appealing to international justice certainly makes sense only when the state seeking it is ready to accept the decision and to demand the respect of this decision.
If this is indeed a national position, a necessary prerequisite is the resumption of exploratory talks with a view to drafting an agreement on the jurisdiction of the International Court. It goes without saying that a consecutive move should be the updating and implementation of confidence-building measures, mainly aeronautical.
A national policy with a similar clear objective that receives major internal political and social consensus allows our country to take the initiative of diplomatic movements and gain a wide range of international support. It halts at its birth or at the very least drastically limits the possibility of actions aimed at the creation of a fait accompli and the continuous increase in unilateral claims.
Nothing is easy; everything begins with our own national strategy of self-awareness, which is the fundamental condition of real and not rhetorical patriotism.
Evangelos Venizelos is former deputy prime minister and former minister of foreign affairs and defense.