Wisdom should prevail in the Aegean

Wisdom should prevail in the Aegean

The recent visit by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to Ankara, during which around 20 agreements for bilateral cooperation were signed, is a clear indication of the positive state of current ties between the two countries. The expectation is that both political and economic ties will continue to flourish at a time when Greece needs to find new sources of income and direct foreign investments to overcome its economic meltdown.

Turkey, on the other hand, continues to seek new markets for its products and investment opportunities abroad in order to maintain its high growth rates that have made it an economic force to be reckoned with. Yet the spectacular improvement in Turkish-Greek ties has not done away with nagging problems that have brought the two countries to the brink of war in the past.

Disputes over territorial waters in the Aegean remain a bone of contention today. Not only do these problems remain, but Athens’ intentions to establish a 200-nautical-mile economic interest zone in the Aegean, based on the U.N.’s Law of the Sea Treaty, could reignite tensions and turn the clock back to the bad old days overnight.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported a few days ago that such a move by Greece, which already claims more than 40 percent of the Aegean, would stretch the area claimed by Athens “far into the Mediterranean – enveloping Turkey – and reaching as far as Cyprus in the southeast.”

Indicating that the stakes are high for Greece, given its current crippling debt burden, WSJ said the area claimed by Athens has an estimated 100 billion euros ($130 billion) of undersea hydrocarbon reserves “and make Greece a significant energy supplier for Europe”

Turkey, like the United States and Israel, which has its own disputes in the Mediterranean - to name just two countries - is not a signatory to the Law of the Sea Treaty. Ankara has said that if Greece increases its current territorial waters of 6 nautical miles to 12 nautical miles, which Athens says is its right under the Treaty, this will be a “casus belli,” a reason for war.

The reason is that this will mean 70 percent of the Aegean comes under Greece’s sovereign control, given the complicated geological structure of the seabed in the region. It goes without saying that Turkey, having declared any expansion of Greek territorial waters to be a casus belli, will hardly accept Greece’s increasing its area of economic interest as far as Cyprus.

Athens is nevertheless lobbying its EU partners in order to prepare the groundwork to declare this zone. France has signaled it will support Athens in its bid but it is not a foregone conclusion that all EU members will. Meanwhile, there are developments in a distant part of the globe, which indicate that Turkish arguments concerning the Aegean are not as unique as the Greek side would like to present.
Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark today have competing claims to the Arctic, a region about the size of Africa, comprising some 6 percent of the Earth’s surface. The “Lomonosov ridge,” in particular, a 1,240-mile underwater mountain range, is testing the strength of the Law of the Sea Treaty as Canada, Russia and EU member Denmark claim the potentially resource-rich region for themselves.

Russia went so far as to plant a flag more than 4,000 meters below the sea in the disputed region in 2007. This prompted, Peter MacKay, Canada’s foreign minister, at the time to declare that “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘we’re claiming this territory.’”
Canada also started to bolster its military presence in the region to support its claim. Analysts say Denmark has been doing the same, which provides an interesting backdrop to Greek charges of Turkish saber rattling in the Aegean and the Mediterranean.

The bottom line seems to be that when it comes issues that are considered to involve national interests the reaction of countries, is much the same.

Given this, one wonders whether it would not be wiser for Greece to actually cooperate with Turkey, not just over the underwater resources but also surface possibilities in the Aegean in a manner that benefits both countries. This would also contribute to the settlement of the Cyprus problem, which is now beset by a similar issue, and concretized peace between Turks and Greece to the benefit of the whole region.

Wisdom says this is the way to proceed, but wisdom has always been in short supply in this part of the world. The time seems ripe, however, to break this debilitating cycle.