Historically, the Greek-Turkish dispute is rooted in the borders delimitated by the Treaty of Paris, 1947, in which the island of Kastellorizo/ Megisti, part of Turkey at the time, was passed to Greece. In the national Turkish narrative, both the 1947 Treaty, as well as the earlier 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, are regarded as a historical injustice. Such strong is the Turkish position with regard to the matter that, in 1996, it brought Turkey and Greece on the edge of a war.
Tensions seem to have built up again, involving the Republic of Cyprus – a member state of the European Union (EU), internationally recognised – and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a self-proclaimed state after the 1983 invasion. The 2019 Exclusive Economic Zone delimitation established by separate treaties between Greece and Egypt, on one hand, and Turkey and Libya, on the other, seem to have not been taken lightly in the context of the already existing dispute.
Of course, discovery of significant gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean has arisen the interest of several countries, which resulted in an agreement between Greece, Cyprus and Israel with regard to the EastMed project, an initiative meant to assure 10% of the European gas needs and significantly diminish the reliance on Russia. Turkey, omitted from the project, claimed part of its territorial waters were included in the above-mentioned project and protested vocally.
All these matters came back with a vengeance in 2020, resulting in an escalation that involved the Air and Navy forces of Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, France and Italy.
Last month, Turkish Oruc Reis seismic vessel was sent precisely in the section crossed by the EasMed project to conduct seismic research activity, accompanied by other Turkish vessels. The Greek navy reacted and sent several frigates to the area as well. One of them, 34-year old Limnos, rammed the Turkish Kemal Reis and caused significant damage, according to the Greek media. This particular kind of event is enough to constitute what is known as a “casus belli” in the International Law literature; it could be used either to provoke or to justify a war. Certainly, matters became explosive as multiple air and navy units have been deployed to the area by Greece, Cyprus, France and Italy. The declared purpose was de-escalation of the conflict, delimitation of the territorial sea and the reiteration of the right to exploit the sovereign resources.
Legally, the conflict falls under the scope of the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Currently, both countries exercise their sovereign rights over 6 nautical miles from the coastline. The treaty under discussion, however, allows the extension of the sovereign rights up to 12 nautical miles. Turkey, however, is not a signatory party of the Treaty, which renders legally debatable its right to extend the territorial waters to that amount. When Greece expressed interest in such an extension, in 1995, a legal controversy has arisen as well. According to art. 15 of UNCLOS, "Where the coasts of two States are opposite or adjacent to each other, neither of the two States is entitled, failing agreement between them to the contrary, to extend its territorial sea beyond the median line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial seas of each of the two States is measured.” The historic title, however, would constitute an exception to this provision, according to UNCLOS. Turkey has chosen to construe a case according to which such an extension of sovereignty would harm its vital interests.
Unclear maritime boundaries, profound interests for natural resources as well as geopolitical implications are all markers of the Greek-Turkish escalation. While the Greek Prime-Minister called for EU sanctions on Turkey and Turkish President made particularly strong remarks, Josep Borrel, EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, have already begun negotiations in which both Greece and Turkey have shown willingness to part-take. At EU level, Germany, which currently holds the EU Presidency, committed its diplomatic efforts to solving the crisis, though it is not exactly clear which states will broker the dispute resolution. At NATO level, both Greece and Turkey have participated in common talks at the NATO headquarter in Brussels on September 8.
Of course, it may be a long way until all the historical and legal load of the dispute will be sorted. So far, Turkish President manifested his openness for “constructive talks”, while the Greek Prime Minister conditioned negotiating by Ankara’s “disengagement”. The Cypriot President admitted that “Nicosia has always been ready for a dialogue… without blackmail of threats”. Of course, the declarations come in the eve of EU Council Summit next week on September 24-25, where sanctions will be – at least – discussed. The unique approach on behalf of the EU, along with the cooperation of the international organisations, to achieve a solution in accordance with the International Law indicate a strong will for de-escalation. While fully respecting the sovereign rights of each State, EU fully supports diplomatic action without illegitimate claims and futile rivalries. It represents a first step, as European Council President Charles Michel indicated mid-September that several countries might be called in to facilitate an agreement. In the meanwhile, Oruc Reis seismic research vessel has returned to port, as well as the Greek frigates, a gesture that indicates EU’s first step was taken in the right direction.
* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of the Romanian Institute for Europe-Asia Studies - IRSEA or any of its partners.