Delineating maritime zones

Delineating maritime zones

With the agreement signed on June 9, 2020 between Greece and Italy, the delimitation line of the 1977 bilateral agreement on the demarcation of the continental shelf of the two countries will now be used for the delimitation of the other maritime zones, in which the two countries are entitled to exercise their sovereign rights or jurisdiction under international law.

In practical terms this means that when Greece declares an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in general or only in the specific area, that zone will already be delimited and its area will be the exact same as that of the continental shelf already demarcated since 1977. Article 2 of the agreement provides that if one of the contracting parties decides to declare a maritime zone, practically an EEZ, it is obliged to inform the other party as soon as possible. 

The delimitation line of the 1977 agreement concluded under the then valid 1958 Geneva Convention on the Law of the Sea (the current Montego Bay Convention introducing the concept of the EEZ was concluded in 1982) remains completely unchanged. It does not extend to the north (Albania) nor to the south (Malta and Libya) until the delimitations with the respective neighboring countries are agreed upon and concluded. 

The transformation of the 1977 agreement on the delimitation of the continental shelf into an agreement on the delimitation of the EEZ between Greece and Italy was one of the goals of our foreign policy, a goal which we had been highlighting since 2013. I therefore consider it a success that this agreement was signed.

Of course, this goal was set in the context of a comprehensive policy on the delimitation of maritime zones, a comprehensive policy which contains chapters ranging from medium to high and to very high difficulty. The delimitation with Italy belongs to the first difficulty category, that with Albania – but also that with Egypt – belongs to the second category, while the one with Turkey, and now with Libya, belongs to the third. 

In 1977, the government of Konstantinos Karamanlis considered that the signing of an agreement on the delimitation of the continental shelf with Italy – following the Greek-Turkish crisis of 1976, which forced our country to appeal to both the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and finally to sign the Protocol of Bern and the moratorium on the exploration of the continental shelf in the Aegean between Greece and Turkey – was tangible proof that some neighboring countries in the Mediterranean could easily agree on a peaceful and civilized delimitation.  

At that time, in order to quickly achieve the delimitation of the continental shelf with Italy, Greece displayed diplomatic flexibility, accepting partial effect of the Strofades and the Diapontia islands and the swapping of certain areas. Therefore, it dealt with the application of the equidistance principle in a “creative” way.  The coordinates were agreed upon in a way that would not cause a disturbance with the neighboring countries (Albania, Libya, Malta). At that time, Italy entered into a series of agreements with neighboring countries for the delimitation of the continental shelf. 

Now, 43 years after the 1977 agreement, 26 years after the ratification by Greece of the Treaty of Montego Bay on the Law of the Sea and seven years after the systematic revival of the matter in 2013, the agreement has been signed, essentially delimiting the EEZs of the two countries, under the well-known conditions of tension in Greek-Turkish relations and after the signing of the so-called Turkey-Libya MoU, in violation of international law. 

I repeat that this is a successful and positive development. However, since Greece signed delimitation agreements with Italy in 1977 and 2020, bearing in mind primarily Turkey and its counterproductive behavior that also goes against international law, it is legally, politically and ultimately historically necessary to know the exact internal balance of the signed agreement. 

First of all, the internal balance of the 1977 agreement, which concerns deviations from the equidistance principle and the principle of full effect of the islands and which respects the outstanding delimitations with other neighboring countries (tripartite areas), is also present in the 2020 agreement. It could not have been otherwise. If Greece had requested a renegotiation of the delimitation line, no agreement could have been reached. However, in my opinion, what should have been included in the new agreement is an explicit statement that the deviations in the 1977 agreement on the full effect of the islands in determining equidistance are due to the fact that the 1977 agreement was concluded prior to the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The deviations are respected by Greece in the context of the pacta sunt servanda principle, between friendly countries and partners in the European Union, but Greece considers the equidistance principle and the full effect of the islands as rules applicable under international law. This declaration is not included in the agreement and the joint declaration signed on June 9, 2020, but can be formulated in the ratification process and in the phase of entry into force. 

The new agreement has been concluded between a country with territorial waters extending to 12 nautical miles (Italy) and a country with territorial waters extending to 6 nautical miles (Greece). It is therefore reasonable that it recognizes as self-evident the right of Greece to also expand its territorial waters, although this entails acknowledging (starting even from now) the traditional fishing rights of Italy in the 6-12 n.m. zone, not only in the Ionian Sea, but also in the Aegean. In fact, this arrangement takes the form of a legally binding joint proposal of the two countries to the EU to amend the relevant Union fisheries regulation. The settlement is valid even before the new agreement enters into force.

In the framework of the joint political declaration signed at the same time as the agreement, Greece considers it obvious that the boundaries of the blocks set out in the Ionian for hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation will be compatible with the delimitation line between the two countries and any necessary adjustments should be finalized before the ratification and entry into force of the new agreement. 

Finally, it is worth noting that with this agreement, the two countries acknowledge the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague (if no other international judicial body is agreed upon between them) to resolve disputes which cannot be resolved politically and diplomatically, despite efforts. 

In foreign policy and security policy, successes are not moments and events, but situations with duration that require attention to detail and foresight concerning their dynamics. Nothing is simple and given. 

We can therefore retain two key elements from the 1977 and 2020 delimitation agreements with our friend and partner Italy: First, the delimitation agreements require negotiation and flexibility in order to achieve a key objective, namely peace and stability in the region and the actual use of sovereign rights and wealth-producing resources which, when declared rhetorically for a long time without practical results are discredited or transferred to the sphere of illusions. Second, international law does not allow the delimitation and subsequent exploitation of maritime zones without consultation, negotiation and agreement or, if an agreement is not feasible, without recourse to an international judgment, with the most valid judgment being that of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. 

There is, however, a third key element emerging from the developments of recent months in the international energy market and which has become more pronounced due to the pandemic. Time is running out very fast and the submarine reserves of fossil fuels in the Mediterranean Sea are in danger of being devalued. 

Therefore, we must take all this into account in the formulation of our overall policy for the delimitation of maritime zones, but also in the formulation of the international and regional framework in which we want our national life to develop over the next several decades; without resorting to easy rhetorics, but with respect to the truth, and deep and thorough knowledge of all aspects and data.

Evangelos Venizelos is a former deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs and minister of national defense. 

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