Turkey-Greece: Everything is on the chessboard

Turkey-Greece: Everything is on the chessboard

These are hectic days for Greek diplomacy. Recently, Turkey announced that it was to go ahead with its plans for exploration and drilling in areas in the eastern Mediterranean, it believes they are covered under the Turkish-Libya memorandum of understanding (MoU) as well as areas in its southern coast. According to the Turkish plans, seismic research and drilling will start - if appropriate licenses are granted to the TPAO - around September.

Turkey’s plans are being directly challenged by Greece, as Athens’s position is that Greek islands do not just have territorial waters but also continental shelf and EEZ. Athens rejects Turkey-Libya agreement as invalid and illegal, they say that Turkey has no right of search and drilling in areas around Greece’s islands in its southeastern sea area which includes Crete and Rhodes.

Day by day, we observe an escalation of tension between Greece and Turkey. In Greece, many have started speaking about a real possibility of a hot incident happening any time from now. You may say, that this is something we have heard many times over the years and somehow a serious clash has been avoided.

For the Greek government though, the real prospect that Turkish research and drilling vessels accompanied by Turkish frigates may appear soon floating in seas which it considers under its own sovereignty, has mobilized the diplomatic team of Mitsotakis government who rushed into co-signing a long-delayed agreement (since 1977) with Italy, for the delineation of their EEZ in the Ionian Sea. It was meant to be a precursor for a series of diplomatic steps by Greece with other neighbors in order to prevent Turkey applying its plans in the East Med in September.

The visit of Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Israel - the first official visit abroad by the Greek prime minister after the pandemic - was meant to be seen in the same context, i.e. a message of condemnation of Ankara’s “challenging” policies in the region together with a message that Greece has strong allies in its neighborhood. The visit to Israel resulted in a reaffirmation of historical ties and a bilateral military agreement as well as a strong worded message by the Greek prime minister against Ankara that it should not meddle with regional affairs unilaterally.

However, the most difficult task for Greek diplomacy at this particular junction is about to take place.  At a period where virtually, no diplomatic channels are open with Turkey, the Greek foreign minister will try to persuade Egypt to come to the side of Greece. Nikos Dendias, following the successful conclusion of the agreement with Italy, will try to pull a similar deal with Egypt.

As with Italy, talks of Greece with Egypt for the delineation of their EEZ have been going on for years, but the presence of Turkey as a new strong player in the region gave the whole issue a character of extreme urgency. The visit of the Greek team to Cairo started yesterday. If an agreement is sealed, Nikos Dendias would have a strong legal base to challenge the legality of the Turkey-Libya MoU, hence challenge the legality of the Turkish activities in sea territories that Greece considers under its authority.

At the moment that this article was written, we did not have any information of how the meetings of the Greek delegation - which included several technical experts - with Egyptian authorities have developed. We understand, though, that this may prove to be not an easy task as Greece’s Egyptian interlocutor appears quite hesitant to potentially challenge Turkey. It is interesting, also, and that was pointed out by certain Greek analysts, that neither Israeli leaders during Mitsotakis’ visit nor Egyptian officials have openly blamed Turkey for its policies in the eastern Mediterranean. The hesitation of Egypt, in spite of the worsening situation near its borders with Libya, may prove a problem for Greece which urgently would like to pull an agreement in order to prevent further actions of Turkey in the sea.

Ankara on the other hand has increased its multifaceted efforts to gain ground in Libya and expand in the East Med, at a time when both the EU and the US are reluctant to actively get involved.  September is not a long time ahead and all the interested parties in this region understand that they have to use all their means to defend their corner.

Will Greece manage to make Egypt commit itself to at least some “partial” agreement on their EEZ? It looks difficult. Because there are so many other players involved, like other Arab countries, France, Russia. Difficult to convince the others for your adherence to justice and the international law when the whole region is in a flux of uncertainty.

There might be a date, though, that we should look out for before September comes. And that is July 1 when Germany takes over the leadership of the EU for a six-month term. The intentions of Merkel to get involved seriously in a peace effort in Libya was seen at the Berlin summit, last January, although what followed was more war than peace.

But still, we may see some more active involvement of the EU in the developments in the eastern Mediterranean region and perhaps some more clear policies toward Ankara.

For the moment, though, we should watch with interest the outcome of the visit of the Greek delegation to Cairo, and gauge the temperature of the waters of eastern Mediterranean, already hot enough to worry us all.

Ariana Ferentinou,