The first step to easing east Med tension: A moratorium

The first step to easing east Med tension: A moratorium

The natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean are estimated to total around 3 percent of global reserves.

Yet the production cost of natural gas in this region is high, and the transfer to markets is even higher. The cheapest option would be a pipeline to Turkey, but the Cyprus problem, as well as Turkey’s strained relations with Egypt and Israel, take this option off the table.

As Greek Cyprus started to consolidate a gas alliance with Egypt, Israel and Greece – along with the support of the United States and the European Union – over the past decade, Turkey simply watched on. But by January of this year, when Greek Cyprus, Israel and Egypt signed a deal to construct the 2,000-km EastMed pipeline project, Turkey had already woken up to the reality of its political isolation becoming an energy trap.

Before continuing reading, I recommend taking a look at the map. In order to bypass Turkey while constructing the pipeline, the maritime area around Crete needs to be delimited between Greece and Greek Cyprus. That can only be possible by assuming that the Greek island of Kastellorizo (Meis in Turkish), a small, isolated Greek outpost located just 2 kilometers from Antalya yet 500 kilometers away from the Greek mainland, has a maritime jurisdiction just like the main continent.

Accepting that the tiny island has a maritime jurisdiction area that goes beyond territorial waters to include a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is not an option for Turkey.

Go back to the map. Greece wants to draw a line starting from Crete that goes to Kastellorizo via Rhodes. The EEZ that would belong to Greece, together with that of Greek Cyprus and Egypt, would confine Turkey’s maritime zone to just a small area in the Gulf of Antalya. A country with the longest coastline in the eastern Mediterranean would end up with only 41,000 square kilometers of maritime jurisdiction area because of an island that’s just 9 square kilometers.

In retaliation, Turkey signed a maritime zone deal last November with the U.N.-supported government in Libya. That deal does not recognize the maritime zones of Crete. And that’s how we’ve ended up with the current escalating tension between Greece and Turkey. But while countries in the Mediterranean were getting ready for energy wars over the course of the last decade, energy trends have taken a different direction. The drop in the prices of oil and natural gas makes the energy sources of the Mediterranean less attractive. With the global economic difficulties aggravated by the pandemic, little economic incentive is left for the highly expensive EastMed project. So what are we fighting about?

Currently, the tension has become more political, and that’s why the best first step appears to be the declaration of a moratorium on all exploration works in the region so that the sides can start working toward a solution. Despite occasional problems, a moratorium in the Aegean is at the center of the relative calm between Turkey and Greece, retired ambassador Daryal Batıbay suggests in a recent article published on the website fikirturu.

The delimitation problem in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece has been transferred to the eastern Mediterranean. While the moratorium in the former has not led to a settlement, a moratorium in the latter could end up with a diplomatic solution because there are two major differences, he says.

First, the problem in the Aegean is far more complicated due to the geographic location of several hundred Greek islands, but in the eastern Mediterranean, the problem stems from one island: Kastellorizo. Second, international law favors Turkey, meaning the country could gain the support of mediators like the United States and the European Union, even though it is not a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
UNCLOS stipulates that islands have the same maritime jurisdiction zones as continents, which is the reason Turkey’s not party to it. But it also stipulates that states should agree to the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas based on the principle of equity.

When you look at the implementation of the treaty in the disputes involving islands, there are several cases where the maritime jurisdictions of islands that belong to one country but which are geographically close to another are reduced and limited to just territorial waters. Greece might refuse to limit Kastellorizo’s maritime jurisdiction zone, as it could create a precedent in favor of Turkey in the Aegean. To convince Greece, says Batıbay, Turkey could accept Crete’s EEZ as declared by Greece.

According to Batıbay, Turkey’s moves in Libya should be used to bring all sides in the eastern Mediterranean to the diplomatic table. The Libya deal and the following military support to the government in Tripoli was a smart move to change the game, and as Turkey’s leaders have been making calls for dialogue, it is now time to resort to smart diplomacy.

While Turkey can convince the United States and EU members that Kastellorizo’s maritime zones should be limited according to international law, it cannot make them accept that an island the size of Crete in such proximity to Greece has no maritime jurisdiction zone. Looking at the map, it would be difficult to sell that to the Turkish public too.

While Turkey and Greece work on a diplomatic solution, a moratorium would give Turkey the chance to start normalizing its ties with Egypt, which sent a positive signal by keeping Kastellorizo out of the deal it signed with Greece. A truce in Libya, where Egypt and Turkey are supporting opposite sides, could further facilitate the normalization.

And it goes without saying that ending the tension in the eastern Mediterranean would also help end Turkey’s diplomatic isolation in the Middle East.