Evangelos Venizelos, a former deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, reveals previously untold aspects in the history of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey.
In an interview with Kathimerini on Sunday, Venizelos, a Socialist MP, offers his take on recent developments while expressing his opinion on what should be done with regard to the country’s disputes with Ankara.
Picking up the baton from the Papandreou government, what did the Samaras-Venizelos government establish and what did it deliver to the Tsipras government, with regard to the Greco-Turkish exploratory talks?
Since 2002, consecutive rounds of exploratory talks have been taking place, with a view to the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Aegean, while from time to time bilateral meetings were organized concerning the confidence-building measures (CBMs), mainly of aeronautical content. However, an agreement on the extent of Greek territorial waters in the Aegean has been the real subject of exploratory talks all these years. Neither the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), nor the region of the Eastern Mediterranean, where very important Greek islands are located, had been the subject of the 55 rounds that took place up until 2013.
When I took over the duties of deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in June 2013, a discussion on dividing up territorial waters geographically into NE, NW, SE and SW Aegean had already been proposed. At that time, I gave written instructions that the exploratory talks should focus not on the territorial waters that are part of the territory and the definition of which constitutes an exercise of national sovereignty, which requires delimitation only when the distance to the opposite country is less than 24 nautical miles, but to the delimitation of the sea zones over which the coastal state does not exercise national sovereignty, but sovereign rights which presuppose delimitation with neighboring states.
My instructions to the Greek delegation, under the excellent Ambassador Pavlos Apostolidis, were that Greece should ask that the subject of the talks be the delimitation of not only the continental shelf, but also of the EEZ – not only in the Aegean, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean. For the first time, the EEZ issue and the Mediterranean issue were raised. This comprehensive approach safeguards all the sovereign rights under delimitation and takes into account the entirety of the Greek coastline and the Dodecanese, which is not divided between the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. This is particularly crucial for the island group of Kastellorizo.
I also gave the instruction to discuss the rule of international law which would act as a reference rule, as Turkey is not part of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but the convention reflects customary law. I raised the same issues with my Turkish counterparts, initially Mr Ahmet Davutoglu and then Mr Mevlut Cavusoglu.
What was the Turkish reaction?
The Turkish reaction was that they would agree to discuss the delimitation of not only the continental shelf, but also the EEZ, both in the Aegean and in the Eastern Mediterranean, but first in the Aegean and then in the Mediterranean. Our position was the simultaneous discussion of both.
Now I see that they have reversed the order, focusing on the Mediterranean, where more countries are involved. The Turkish side has since accepted the relevant case law of the international courts and arbitration tribunals as a reference rule. The Turks often repeat that in their view the principle of equity applies and that the islands on the “wrong side” (!) do not have a continental shelf and EEZ, but only territorial waters. However, in writing to the UN, they refer to the relevant international case law which applies a three-phase judicial reasoning, beginning with equidistance/median line and the full effect of the islands before checking the “relevant circumstances” and before applying the so-called proportionality test.
At the same time, we had worked on detailed proposals for aeronautical CBMs, in consultation with Mr Antonis Samaras and Mr Dimitris Avramopoulos and I had given detailed instructions on them. I would like to remind you that at that time the conditions for the resumption of bicommunal talks in Cyprus – which ended as they did in 2017 – had been established.
All these were part of a comprehensive strategy for the delimitation of maritime zones, which also included intensifying negotiations with Italy on the conversion of the 1977 agreement into an EEZ delimitation agreement, the resumption of contacts with Albania on the ratification of the 2009 agreement with an updated preamble and technical geographical location rechecking – in this context an agreement was signed with Albania on the use of the Greek place names (toponyms) by a declaration of rejection of any kind of irredentism – and the formation, after the fall of President Mohamed Morsi, of the new framework of bilateral Greek-Egyptian relations, focusing on the delimitation of the maritime zones and the tripartite cooperation with the participation of Cyprus.
Most importantly, in continuation of Law 4001/2011 and in collaboration with Yannis Maniatis, we located the “blocks” south of Crete and signed the first concession contracts. This is the most concrete and important thing that has been done by Greece within the outer limits of the continental shelf and its EEZ.
What were the red lines on either side? It is said that one of the main disagreements was the so-called demilitarization of the islands and the sovereignty over islets which are not explicitly mentioned in international treaties. Did Turkey want these issues to be included in the international dispute “package,” while Greece insisted that they are not part of the negotiation process?
Greece was only discussing the delimitation of maritime zones as required by international law, since without a final delimitation with adjacent or opposite countries, these sovereign rights cannot be fully exercised. Neither the “gray areas,” nor the “demilitarization” of the Greek islands were the subject of exploratory talks and meetings for the CBMs. Nor was such a political issue raised toward me at a political level by the Turkish side.
In addition, in 2010, when I was minister of national defense, Lemnos was made part of the European Union military planning. but also of NATO’s planning for military operations in Libya, because the famous “NATO issues” with Lemnos concern exercises in peacetime and not actual military operations.
The main thing is that a few days before the January 2015 elections and my departure from the Foreign Ministry, I changed – in consultation with the opposition at the time – the statements of our country regarding the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ( ITLOS) to exclude issues of national sovereignty such as “gray zones” and “demilitarization,” while the delimitation of the continental shelf and the EEZ would require a special agreement on the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.
What is your view on the mediation of Germany?
The resumption of the exploratory talks for the delimitation of the continental shelf and the EEZ with the aim of either a final agreement or a special agreement on the jurisdiction, preferably of the ICJ, should be an “aggressive” diplomatic initiative of Greece, without having to wait for the next Turkish Navtex (navigational advisory) or third-party mediation.
Of course, since we accepted the German mediation, since the tripartite meeting in Berlin took place and now we have had the visits of German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Athens and Ankara, Greece must be reliable, with a firm position in favor of the resumption of the exploratory talks, with interruption and non-repetition of provocative actions. After all, there has always been – albeit under pre-election conditions – American interest in the region and in NATO’s southern wing. The US administration is aware of the history of the region during the last 46 years.
You disagree with the partial extension of territorial waters in the Ionian Sea and you proposed an extension of territorial waters for all countries in the Eastern Mediterranean instead. What concerns you about partial expansion?
I would like to avoid the notion that Greece actually agrees with the classical Turkish theory of “special conditions” in the Aegean before the new cycle of contacts even begins. I am not saying that an agreement will be reached with Turkey on the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean without compromises agreed upon or decided by the ICJ. I am not saying that we will ignore international navigation. I am saying that the impression should not be given that Greece is abandoning its main positions before negotiations even begin. For this reason, I disagreed in 2018 with the relevant announcement of the SYRIZA-ANEL government, as did New Democracy at the time.
The Tsipras government did not move forward. I am now reading comments saying, “Finally, a realistic move on part of the Greek government, it recognizes that there are special conditions in the Aegean.” I do not think this is the government’s position. I am waiting for the draft law and I hope my comments will help clarify the handling and overall national strategy. After all, the crucial field now is not the Ionian of course, not even the Aegean, but the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.
My position is that Greece should propose to all the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean that do not have their territorial waters at 12 nm to extend their territorial sea. In practice, this concerns Greece and Turkey. I noted that on Wednesday, after the statement I made on the prime minister’s announcement on the Ionian, Mr Nikos Dendias said in the Parliament that the extension south of Crete is also being considered.
If the government considers that our overall strategy is now enhanced by a move not of partial, but of gradual extension of territorial waters to 12 nm, it could have said that Greece will expand its territorial waters in any areas where the continental shelf and the EEZ – or at least the EEZ – have already been delimitated. Thus, we would have an area in the Ionian and an area in the Eastern Mediterranean that are delimitated using a single criterion.
Some say that the real problem lies in the fact that Greece will never be able to accept that the single area of Greece-Cyprus is interrupted due to the possibility that the International Court of Justice will decide on the reduced effect of Kastellorizo on the continental shelf. What is your view on this?
The single national area of Greece-Cyprus is a different matter from the single defense area of Greece-Cyprus. Another different matter is the delimitation of the continental shelf and EEZ between Greece and Cyprus without taking into account the positions of other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Turkey. Greece has formally stated, by signing the partial delimitation of the EEZ with Egypt west of the 27th and 59th meridian, that it takes into account the other countries in the region that are claiming rights and raising the issue of delimitation east of this meridian. In other words, Greece took into account the sensitivities of Egypt, which respectively apparently took into account the Turkish claims and based the extension of the delimitation line east of the 28th meridian on the delimitation with third countries and the creation of tri-national points.
If it is hypothetically agreed with Turkey or ruled by the ICJ in a binding manner for the parties, that the Kastellorizo complex and in particular Strongyli has a full effect of 200 nm and the Turkish mainland coastline is not taken into account at all, then there is a connection of the Greek and Cypriot EEZs. Without an agreement with Turkey or without an ICJ decision, the delimitation and in particular the exploitation of these zones will be practically impossible, due to the constant military tension that will affect not only Greece, but also Cyprus, with all that this means for the situation on the island, the solution of the Cyprus issue and the exploitation of the Cypriot EEZ, which is delimitated with Egypt, Lebanon and Israel.
Public opinion considers that a) Greece can expand territorial waters everywhere and b) that all islands have a continental shelf with full effect (up to 200 miles). Anything less will be perceived as a “retreat.” Many argue that no prime minister can sign an agreement that leaves Greece even with a fraction less of the territory that was delivered by Eleftherios Venizelos. Consequently, inactivity is the only possible policy. What is your view on this?
I am totally against inactivity, but also against nervous actions without strategy, without preparing not only the next, but also the last movement. In his time, Eleftherios Venizelos did not deal with concepts such as the EEZ. On the occasion of the ratification of the Greco-Italian agreement on the delimitation of the continental shelf, the government of Konstantinos Karamanlis stated in 1977 to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, that was pursuing Greece’s appeal against Turkey (which was rejected for lack of jurisdiction), that the continental shelf does not constitute “territory” and does not concern the boundaries of the country’s territory. That is why the relevant agreements – as is the case now with Italy and Egypt – are ratified by a simple majority under Article 28 (1) and not by an qualified majority under Article 27 of the Constitution.
For the extension of territorial waters to 12 nm, and for the full effect of all the islands, I previously replied based on the recent Greek practice of partial extension of territorial waters in the Ionian Sea and partial delimitation of the EEZ with Egypt and on the basis of the findings of international case law.
I totally agree with you that the general public is accustomed to easy generalities. They are just as easily excited and frustrated. Many speak irresponsibly, without knowledge and awareness. Unfortunately, this situation has worsened in recent months. In fact, the notion has been cultivated that while we have the right to use military force, we do not have the courage to make the decisive move. However, the right to use or threaten to use military force is recognized by International Law in extremely rare and extraordinary situations. Turkey is the one that declares casus belli and we have been denouncing them for decades internationally.
We have demonstrated the strength and readiness of our armed forces. Everyone knows that Greece is strongly defending its existence. Historically however, in the last 46 years, “hot” or almost “hot” incidents have not led to abandonment, but to a resurgence and a widening of the list of unilateral and unlawful Turkish claims and challenges. They then led to long moratoria, mediations, contacts under pressure, usually problematic communiqués and ultimately a dramatic loss of historical time. Greece must not bear the heavy burden of the uncertain relations between the West and Turkey.
Whatever the developments in Turkey, geography requires us to delimitate maritime zones with them, in line with the procedures of international law, since in a different case sovereign rights become inactive.