By Ditmir Bushati*
Greece’s decision to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles in the Ionian Sea conveys a clear political message that reflects the changes that have taken place over the last two years. This constitutes the first expansion since the end of World War II and comes right after the conclusion of delimitation agreements with Italy and Egypt, the resumption of exploratory talks with Turkey, as well as the public statement regarding the upcoming delimitation of the maritime zone with Albania through an international court.
Although Greece’s move only affects the expansion of its territorial sea in the Ionian, Prime Minister Mitsotakis said it is the sovereign right of Greece to extend its territorial waters whenever and wherever it deems appropriate, including southern Crete and elsewhere. This position is rooted in the accompanying declaration of the ratification of the Convention on the Law of the Sea of Montego Bay by Greece, which foresees the temporary application of the width of the territorial sea to 6 nautical miles, with a right to extend to 12 nautical miles at any time.
However, given the context in which any expansion in the Aegean Sea is considered by Turkey as a casus belli, it is evident that we are facing a change in the traditional stance of Greek foreign policy, which aimed to start the expansion of the territorial waters, initially from the Aegean. Therefore, this change of attitude seeks to differentiate the treatment of issues related to the delimitation of maritime zones with Turkey, vis-a-vis other countries, taking nonetheless advantage as much as possible of the precedents being set.
The resumption of the Greek-Turkish exploratory talks, more than providing a solution to the set of complex issues between the two countries, aims to appease the tensions between them and avoid EU sanctions against Turkey, recognizing the irreplaceable role of the latter in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, while looking forward to a clearer picture of the new dynamics in the region which are expected to be shaped with the new US administration of President Biden.
The other change confirms a departure from the traditional Greek position requesting full effect for the islands vis-a-vis the mainland. This change is clearly demonstrated in the conclusion of maritime agreements with Italy and Egypt.
Italy and Greece signed an agreement on the delimitation of the continental shelf on May 24, 1977. The fact that the Greek island of Othonoi was not granted full effect has produced a modification of the equidistance medium line in order to reach an equitable solution. Stated differently, the parties agreed to reduce the influence of the Greek island by 3.5% compared to mainland Italy. Regarding the territorial sea, for this island, the parties automatically accepted the width of 12 nautical miles, as the distance between these two countries extends over 24 nautical miles.
On 13 June 2020, Italy and Greece signed an agreement on the delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zones which confirms the delimitation line of the 1977 agreement. This agreement allows the respective fishing fleets to operate beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone demarcation line, however without entering the respective territorial sea, in accordance with the EU acquis. The delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone allows the two countries to exercise their sovereign rights in the use of wind energy, underwater communication cables, scientific research and wildlife.
Despite its primary focus in the Aegean, Greece continued to conclude delimitation agreements with other maritime neighbors. Initially with Italy, with which they share the same fishery policies, as EU Member States. Afterwards, Greece concluded Egypt an agreement on the delimitation of the Continental Shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone, on 6 August 2020. It is interesting to note that the delimitation line the parties agreed is partial. The point that remains unconcluded is the maritime area in front of the Greek inhabited island of Kastelorizo, located just 2 km from Turkey. The incomplete conclusion of the Greece-Egypt demarcation line comes as a result of the lack of a Greek-Turkish agreement to determine the impact Kastelorizo would have on the Continental Shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone. The island of Kastelorizo also affects: (i) the possibility of delimitation of the maritime zones between Turkey and Egypt; (ii) the Turkey-Cyprus maritime delimitation line; (iii) the Greece-Cyprus delimitation line.
The agreement between Greece and Egypt directly impacts the memorandum signed between Turkey and Libya, which reflects the geographical reality. Consequently, the Greece-Egypt delimitation line starts from Crete and the surrounding islands such as Karpathos, Koufonisi, Kasos, the existence of which has not been taken into account in the Turkey-Libya memorandum.
In the agreement between Greece and Egypt, the effect of the Greek islands in the delimitation of both the Continental Shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone has been reduced by up to 10% in front of the mainland of Egypt. Given that the distance between Greece and Egypt is much bigger than 24 nautical miles, the Greek islands have automatically enjoyed full effect on territorial waters; that is, the 12 nautical miles.
Egypt accepted a partial agreement while maintaining its neutrality towards the Greek-Turkish dispute. Greece, meanwhile, has abandoned its traditional stance on maximizing the island effect in order to secure an agreement hampering the Turkey-Libya memorandum. Although this memorandum was submitted to the UN after being signed by the parties on November 27, 2019 as an expression of their political will, it does not entail the legal gravitas of an international agreement.
In the context when Albania and Greece are resorting to an international court for the delimitation of the maritime zones, Greece’s new approach to the exercise of the right to the sea and the establishment of the precedents should serve as a lesson for us (Albania) for a better orientation, in order to achieve a fair and equitable delimitation in the Ionian Sea.
We must not forget that the 2009 agreement between Albania and Greece ignored to our detriment the precedent set in 1977, reducing the influence of the Othonoi island on the continental shelf in front of the mainland. This precedent was also confirmed in the recent Italy-Greece and Greece-Egypt agreements.
The above-mentioned agreements are useful to understand that, despite the domestic legislation on the width of the territorial sea, the International Law of the Sea and the reflection of the principle of 12 nautical miles in the respective geographical territory will always prevail.
Greece shares territorial waters only with Albania and Turkey, as the distances between the coasts are smaller than 24 nautical miles. Consequently, in contrast to the above-mentioned cases with Italy and Egypt, where the 12 nautical miles principle automatically derives from the Montego Bay Convention on the Law of the Sea, without the need to draw a delimitation line for territorial sea, in the Albanian-Greek and Greek-Turkish cases the delimitation lines of the territorial seas need to be defined.
Precedents that have been set, especially in the region, are indicative of the expectations and the outcome of the judicial process that will unfold with Greece for the delimitation of the maritime zones. Therefore, a systematic approach by Albanian institutions is needed to keep working to complete the delimitation process with Italy and Montenegro as a strategic priority, and why not to set our own precedents. In addition, the exercise of the right of the sea must reaffirm the importance of the Mediterranean dimension of our foreign policy. /ibna
*Ditmir Bushati is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania