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Whose Sea? EU’s Role in the Eastern Mediterranean - A View from Turkey

BLOG - 13 October 2020

At the heart of most of the recent conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean lies one issue: the unresolved problem of border drawing in the waters surrounding the Turkish coasts and the myriad of Greek archipelagos. Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat and current chairman of the Istanbul-based think tank EDAM, shares important factors needed to understand Turkey's perspective in this crisis, and lists three areas where the involvement of the EU could be beneficial to mitigating the dispute.

The crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean has tested the EU’s resolve and ability to play a role in this conflict. In the future, the Union may be compelled to act with a more accentuated geopolitical logic in its immediate neighborhood, particularly as the United States’ gradual disengagement is felt more acutely. Compared to Greece and Cyprus, both EU members, Turkey is more recalcitrant to acknowledging a role for the EU in this dispute. Yet, a constructive way forward for the future of the relationship between the EU and Turkey, and for the resolution of long-festering problems between the three maritime neighbors, is necessary. This paper will present such a scenario.

The starting position is a difficult one. Firstly, Turkey posits that the EU cannot play a role because it cannot be impartial in a dispute that pits its own members against a non-EU country. Ankara believes that the only workable formula remains direct negotiations between Turkey and Greece, which should also include the panoply of bilateral disputes in addition to the contested delineation of maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean. For some disputed areas, a direct political settlement could emerge. For others, Ankara and Athens may agree to seek international adjudication. 

Compared to Greece and Cyprus, [...] Turkey is more recalcitrant to acknowledging a role for the EU in this dispute. 

Secondly, Turkey criticizes the EU’s political decisions, claiming that the EU does not have the competence to take a position on the Eastern Mediterranean dispute. This argument rests on the principle that the delimitation of maritime borders is not an EU competence. It is up to national governments to reach agreements with third parties. In the absence of such a network of agreements, the EU cannot claim that its maritime borders are being violated. 

Additionally, the EU does not have the competence even to interpret disputes that relate to maritime borders. That is the exclusive competence of international courts, in this case the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. So, when the EU issues a statement criticizing Turkey for transgressing the sovereignty of Greece or Cyprus, the EU is in fact acting in lieu of an international court. 

The fragility of the EU’s political position is emphasized when it comes to the part of the Eastern Mediterranean that has not been the subject of a bilateral agreement to establish mutual exclusive economic zones. This is the area that lies east of the Greece-Egypt Agreement on maritime borders, which partially overlaps with the Turkey-Libya Agreement on maritime borders. It is also an area where there are competing claims about the scale and ownership of the continental shelf.As discussed in other papers of this dossier, Greece claims sovereignty over the continental shelf solely based on the island of Kastellorizo, which is a small island of about 10 square kilometers, 2 nautical miles off the Turkish coast. Athens claims a continental shelf close to 40,000 square kilometers on account of this island. In return, Turkey acknowledges no continental shelf to Kastellorizo because of its proximity to the Anatolian mainland, the island’s very small population and limited residual economic activity. As a result, when the EU criticizes Turkey for the seismic exploration carried out by the Oruç Reis vessel, this position is viewed in Ankara as being tantamount to recognizing and siding with the maximalist claims of Greece. 

In international law, countries can engage in seismic exploration in contested exclusive economic zones. As long as there is no bilateral agreement setting out the limits of the EEZ, the zone remains contested. In these areas, international law allows for activities that do no permanent damage to the environment. In other words, seismic exploration is allowed, but drilling is not. From this perspective as well, the EU criticism over the operations of the Turkish ship Oruç Reis stands only if the EU refrains from recognizing the contested nature of these waters. 

The Oddity of the Seville Map 

In return, the Turkish position is not consistent with claims advanced at home and abroad that the EU has a common and adopted position on the issue of maritime borders. An arcane map prepared by an academic at the University of Seville back in 2007 and therefore called the "Seville Map" has reached notoriety in Turkey.

The map was first used as a supporting point for the argument by a group of retired naval officers, who are the proponents of the "Blue Homeland" doctrine. This doctrine undergirds Turkey’s more ambitious posturing on the Eastern Mediterranean. The map, which allegedly is being used as a reference by some European agencies, is supportive of the Greek maximalist claims in the Eastern Mediterranean.

[The "Seville Map"] grants an extensive continental shelf to Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, to the detriment of Turkey. 

It grants an extensive continental shelf to Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, to the detriment of Turkey. In fact the original version of the map sets out that the borders have been drawn with the assumption of a "hypothetical median line". This caveat seems to have disappeared from the more recent versions of the map in use by the European agencies. 

The argument therefore is that this usage of the map is tantamount to the EU having adopted the same anti-Turkish position. It is an indication of the effectiveness of the domestic campaign to support this claim that even the Turkish government has started to make references to this "Seville Map", in its discourse portraying the EU as having formally and legally adopted a position on the issue of maritime borders. The "Seville Map" is ostensibly being used in the Turkish debate to emphasize that with such a flawed position, the EU can have no possible role in helping to settle bilateral disputes between Greece and Turkey. It also serves the purpose of further tarnishing the EU-Turkey relationship by Turkish Eurosceptics. Yet, in an answer to a question filed by the Brussels representative of the Hürriyet Daily News, the European Commission clarified the legal status of the "Seville Map", stating that "external reports commissioned by institutions are not official documents of the EU and have no legal or political value for the EU". This very belated clarification will hopefully lead Turkish stakeholders to adopting a sounder position regarding the actual role of the EU. 

The Way Forward

Against this backdrop, there may be three areas where the involvement of the EU could be beneficial to mitigating the Eastern Mediterranean dispute. 

On the Turkey-Greece exploratory talks

Turkey and Greece have held about 60 rounds of exploratory talks to settle their panoply of bilateral disputes, including the issue of maritime borders. These talks had been suspended since 2016 at the wake of the botched coup attempt in Turkey. The talks are now due to restart between the two capitals. They essentially aim to establish a framework for settlement. To increase the likelihood of a settlement, the EU will need to revisit its position and more particularly its rhetoric on the Eastern Mediterranean dispute. It is clear that the EU is in need of demonstrating political solidarity with Greece as its member. But this inclination should not come at the cost of strengthening the hand of maximalists both in Athens and in Ankara. In other words, the EU should refrain from being seen as unconditionally supporting what is essentially the negotiating position of its member state. Instead, the EU should develop a more neutral language, acknowledging that its role is not to adjudicate, but to facilitate the settlement of disputes.

On the maritime borders dimension of the Cyprus dispute

Another dimension of the Eastern Mediterranean crisis relates to the Cyprus dispute. The dispute remains unsettled despite many UN-led initiatives. A creative way forward would be to delink the maritime borders issue from the overall political settlement of the Cyprus problem. Turkish Cypriots justifiably claim that the off-shore hydrocarbon resources belong to them as well and that they should be entitled to a fair revenue stream from the commercialization of these resources. The Greek Cypriots acknowledge this demand; but continue to link the issue to the outcome of the political talks between the two communities. These talks reached a dead end when the Greek Cypriot party effectively sabotaged the Crans-Montana summit of July 2017, that most observers hoped would have finally brought this conflict to an end. 

Nicosia maintains that the revenues allocated to Turkish Cypriots are to be kept at an escrow account until a full political settlement. A possible alternative could be the "condominium" formula. Namely, Turkish and Greek Cypriots would agree to postpone the settlement of the maritime borders issue until the time of a political settlement, but would also agree to a joint commercialization of these resources and a concomitant plan to fairly share the revenues. A possible stumbling block for Greek Cypriots is whether this formula would entail a recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized so far only by Turkey. That is why the EU could help to develop a formula akin to the "condominium" procedure in international law that could satisfy the concerns of the different parties. The EU could also help accelerate this process by appointing a Special Representative for the Eastern Mediterranean who could engage in shuttle diplomacy between Ankara, Athens, Nicosia and Lefkoşa. 

On the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum

After having set up the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in 2018, the six founding members (Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Cyprus and Palestine) have transformed it into a regional organization in September 2020 with headquarters in Cairo. The establishment of the Forum, and its exclusion of Turkey, was driven to a large extent by the reaction in Washington to Ankara’s purchase of a strategic weapons system from Russia, the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system. It has to be recalled therefore that the project was chaperoned by the US rather than the EU. But today, the Forum’s current format has become a major issue. Turkey’s exclusion from the Forum is seen as an affront by Turkish policy makers and is interpreted as a sign of the willingness of the regional countries to "contain" Turkey. It therefore feeds into the combative outlook on the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, changes in global hydrocarbon prices, coupled with initiatives like the European Green Deal that aim to lower countries’ reliance on polluting hydrocarbon resources, are set to seriously challenge the economic feasibility of any Eastern Mediterranean pipeline designed to bring offshore gas to European markets by sidelining Turkey. Therefore, the EU should contemplate a diplomatic role that would create the conditions for Turkey’s accession to the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

A tentative agreement between Ankara and Athens to restart the exploratory talks is certainly a positive sign.

But ultimately, despite the potential presented by these three suggested tracks, the EU’s ability to espouse a constructive role in the Eastern Mediterranean dispute will remain intimately tied to the atmospherics of the Turkey-EU relationship. In the last few years, the EU has struggled to develop a cogent strategy towards Turkey. It is clear that the fundamental paradigm of the accession dynamic has become dysfunctional. 

Ankara and Brussels officially remain committed to this framework. But in reality, this superficial and ever less credible commitment to Turkey’s potential EU membership pre-empted the emergence of a complementary/alternative framework that could have provided a new and positive momentum. Therefore, with the exception of the financial assistance component of the refugee deal of March 2016, the Turkey-EU relationship has essentially languished in recent years. It is no coincidence that the European Commission’s most recent Progress Report on Turkey underscores this backsliding. 

Cognizant of this dilemma, EU leaders finally attempted to lay the ground for a positive agenda with Turkey. The EU Council of October 1, 2020 sets out the modernization of the Customs Union, visa liberalization and cooperation on refugees as imminent avenues of Turkey-EU cooperation. This offer is conditional, however, on the stabilization of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. A tentative agreement between Ankara and Athens to restart the exploratory talks is certainly a positive sign. Turkey is also expected to refrain from relaunching exploration and drilling activities in the contested waters of Cyprus. 

The near future of the Eastern Mediterranean will be determined by the credibility of the EU’s own more tangible offer. EU leaders will need to reaffirm their commitment to this "positive agenda" with Turkey. This reassurance will prove decisive to shifting the domestic political calculations of the Turkish leadership towards a more collaborative future with Europe, and a less confrontational policy on the Eastern Mediterranean. 

 

 

Copyright: ADEM ALTAN / AFP

 

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