In November 2019, Libya and Turkey concluded an agreement that will give a huge swath of the Eastern Mediterranean to the two states, effectively cutting right through the sea and other countries’ interests. This agreement ignores the other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean and their maritime rights, chief among them Greece and Cyprus.
It also raises the stakes for the dispute over the large natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. Historical tensions between local countries and longstanding disputes over territorial waters culminated in Turkey and Libya’s maritime agreement, which flaunts international law but signals that Turkish interests in the Eastern Mediterranean must be addressed for natural gas development plans to move forward.
History of Mediterranean Disputes
Enmity between Greeks and Turks has existed for centuries, since Byzantine times and the start of the Ottoman occupation of Greece. After Greece achieved its independence in 1830, it fought several wars to recover other Greek-inhabited regions from the Ottoman Empire. The last of these wars occurred in the wake of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, leading to a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Alongside the bitter memories of war in Anatolia is tension over Cyprus. In 1974, a coup attempt by the Greek government led to a Turkish occupation of the northern half of the island. Turkey has maintained control of the northern half of the island ever since, despite international condemnation.
Relations have remained contentious between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus. Turkey and Greece continue to dispute certain Aegean islands, including, most notably, the island of Imia (or Kardak in Turkish), a rocky patch of land solely inhabited by goats over which the two countries nearly went to war in 1996. Turkish fighter jets have repeatedly violated Greek airspace. The northern half of Cyprus remains under the control of the Turkish-backed local government and Turkey has also encroached on Cyprus’ maritime territory.
It is Turkey’s aggressive stance on maritime control in the Eastern Mediterranean that is now exacerbating tensions with Greece and Cyprus. Maritime control in the Eastern Mediterranean has not yet been delineated, but a large amount of natural gas has been discovered there. The Eastern Mediterranean is estimated to contain $700 billion worth of gas. Much of this gas is located near Cyprus and Israel and not near the Turkish coast. Yet Turkey has claimed rights to mine and drill near Cyprus, and has even conducted drilling off the coast of Cyprus in disputed territorial waters.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) is the governing international law on maritime interests of different countries. Under UNCLOS, a country’s territorial waters extend twelve nautical miles from the coast, but its exclusive economic zone (“EEZ”) can extend an additional 200 miles from the coast, in which it can claim fishing, mining, and drilling rights. If the maritime distance between two countries is less than 424 miles, they are supposed to agree on a compromise. But although UNCLOS has over 160 state parties, Turkey has refused to sign it.
In fact, the Turkish government has issued statements denying that Greece’s signature of UNCLOS affects its own maritime jurisdiction. This is in part due to the fact that Greece’s maritime jurisdiction would extend from each of its islands, giving it significant maritime territorial holdings in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey instead claims that its maritime jurisdiction should extend to its continental shelf, which would give it a much larger jurisdiction than that available under UNLCOS, and has not negotiated EEZs with its neighbors.
Meanwhile, after lengthy negotiations, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel announced that they will sign a gas pipeline agreement on January 2, 2020. This gas pipeline will transport natural gas from Israeli and Cypriot territorial waters to Greece and then the rest of Europe for export. The pipeline is part of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (“EMGF”), which also includes Egypt, Italy, Jordan, and Palestine.
The pipeline would be the largest in the world and would provide a significant economic boon to the EMGF countries as well as help reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian gas. The United States has also signaled its support of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel through the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019. The EMGF effectively excludes Turkey from the Eastern Mediterranean gas market. But Turkey is forcing itself into the center of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey-Libya Maritime Agreement
Cutting straight into the EMGF’s pipeline plan is Turkey’s maritime agreement with Libya. The agreement extends Turkey’s maritime borders from Turkey’s southwest coast all the way across the Mediterranean to Libya’s coastline. However, this agreement is not legally binding on the region since it does not include Greece, Cyprus, or Egypt, all of which have claims to the maritime territory Turkey now claims.
The Turkish-Libyan agreement is overshadowed by the security and military cooperation agreement they signed less than a month after the maritime agreement, which provides crucial Turkish military assistance to the Libyan Government of National Accord (“GNA”), whose capital of Tripoli has been under attack from opposition forces under General Khalifa Haftar. This implies that the maritime agreement, even if it were valid under international law, would also potentially be invalidated from having been signed under duress of national security concerns.
The maritime agreement unilaterally bypasses other countries’ international rights, but Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated, “Our objective with this agreement is not to hijack anybody’s rights in the Mediterranean, to the contrary, [it] is to protect our rights. Because if we would have not taken such a step, [there would be] a plot that was aiming to confine [Turkey] to its territorial waters in the Mediterranean.”
Ironically, Erdoğan stated that he would not permit unilateral action in the Eastern Mediterranean. While Turkey is not bound by UNCLOS, and therefore not required to follow its delineation of maritime borders, it is still obligated by customary international law to negotiate in good faith with all interested parties, including Greece and Cyprus.
Reacting to the Agreement
Greece and Cyprus see it as merely an illegal taking of their maritime jurisdictions and resources. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the deal “illegal and invalid.” Greece sent two letters objecting to the agreement to the United Nations Security Council, asking it to investigate. The European Union has backed Greece and Cyprus and declared the Turkey-Libyan maritime agreement illegal. Egypt similarly called the deal “illegal and not binding” and Israel even warned that it could “jeopardize peace and stability in the region.”
The maritime agreement is undoubtedly illegal on its face and suggests that Turkey will try to impose its will with an iron fist, even at the risk of disturbing regional politics and economies. Despite the weight of historical enmities in the region, EMGF and its member states will need to plan for how to best move forward in cooperation with Turkey rather than risk fallout from a gas pipeline that is scuttled by Turkish machinations. Mitsotakis’ suggestion of going to the International Court of Justice if multilateral negotiations fail could be such a compromise.