Is There a Still Way Forward to Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean? | Analysis by Aylin Ünver Noi



Is There a Still Way Forward to Cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Assoc. Prof. Aylin Ünver Noi, MCA Foundation Governing and Advisory Board member

Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the need for inter-state cooperation. Turkey was one of the first countries that provided medical supplies to its NATO allies in need to fight against Covid-19. This cooperation between NATO allies indicated us that allies stronger together than they are apart. These developments also raised hopes and expectations that Covid-19 will distract states from geopolitics. Gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean had initially increased expectations for cooperation through energy diplomacy.

Contrary to expectations, gas exploration and drilling activities neither served to cooperation nor distracted states from geopolitics. The unilateral declarations and actions taken by some states in exploring and drilling gas and signing the maritime boundary delimitation agreements with countries in the eastern Mediterranean without reaching an agreement on the areas where the claims of the states overlap have also worsened the situation. Briefly, gas activities in the region fuelled the existing tensions and even exacerbated them, which is quite evidenced by recent tension between two NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

Tension between two countries escalated through  militarizing activities of Greece on the  Greek islands near to Turkey’s coastline. The Eastern Aegean islands, which had been placed under Greek sovereignty in 1914, shall remain demilitarized according to Treaty of Lousanne (1923) and Paris Peace Treaties (1947). Militarization of Greek  islands near to coastline of Turkey were forbidden according to these treaties. Greece with its militarization of these islands  violates these treaties.

Furthermore, malign influence of some states even that do not have a coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean obviously does not serve for peace, stability and prosperity in the region.  In other words, their intervention is not helpful to solve disagreements in the region. Less interest of Greeks to reduce tensions with Turkey partly fuelled by these malign actors’ policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and return to geopolitics.

Exploratory talks that will begin soon between Turkey and Greece can be a platform for a dialogue needed. Both sides will explore reasons  of disagreements and explore methodology to solve them. These periodical rounds of talks were held 60 times between Turkey and Greece between 2002-2016.

There are several disagreements between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean ranging from territorial waters, continental shelf, EEZ, airspace, militarization of islands near to coastline of Turkey to Cyprus issue.

In order to enable the reader to better understand the current disagreements between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean,  the main reasons of disagreements in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean and suggestions for solution are evaluated in the following part.

Maritime boundary delimitation

The proximity of some Greek islands to the Turkish coasts causes problems in reaching an agreement on maritime boundary between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea.

In maritime boundary delimitation, islands may have full effect, partial effect or no effect. Islands are ignored or given limited effect in maritime boundary delimitation if their location distorts equitable delimitation.

Delimitation is to be effected by agreement in accordance with equitable principles. Delimitation of EEZ between states with opposite coasts shall be effected by agreement on the basis of international law in order to reach an equitable solution. If no agreement can be reached between the parties then third party solutions ranging from negotiations, inquiries, conciliation, arbitration to submission to the International Court of Justice apply.

Greece gives full effect/ full Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) to its islands in the Aegean Sea. According to this maximalist approach of Greece, which gives full effect to all of its islands in the Aegean Sea ignoring Turkey’s rights, makes the Aegean Sea is a purely Greek. This maximalist maritime boundary claims of Greece, which ignores Turkey’s rights, confines Turkey’s maritime jurisdiction to the Gulf of Antalya.

Turkey has the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Turkey argues that there is no automatical claim in international law that islands generate full maritime jurisdiction areas. Islands cannot generate full effect/Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under international law as they distort the equitable delimitation. Maximalist approach of Greece based on full effect given to Greek islands distorts equtable delimitation.

Turkey argues that EEZ disagreements between Greece and Turkey can be solved thorugh dialogue and negotiations based on equity and equidistance/ median line principle  that does not give full effect to islands.

Aegean Sea is a common sea between Turkey and Greece that requires mutual consent and fair and equitable maritime boundary delimitation. Greece should give up its perception to regard the entire Aegean Sea as a purely Greek sea disregarding Turkey’s rights in the Aegean Sea as one of the coastal states.

What is the EU’s Position on Turkey-Greece’s disagreement on  delimitation maritime boundary? This is not the first case for the EU. The EU remained neutral when its member states Croatia and Slovenia had similar disagreement on maritime boundary delimitation. However, the EU does not show same neutral position on the disagreement between Greece and Turkey. The EU supports Greece’s maximalist approach in the Eastern Mediterranean and threaten Turkey to impose sanctions. According to international law, the EU does not have any competence in delimiting maritime boundaries. Accordingly, the EU is not at the position to qualify Turkey’s offshore activities illegal under international law.

Double standard harms the credibility of the EU and its potential to play a mediator role between Turkey and Greece. The EU should remain neutral on maritime boundary delimitation and support dialogue between Greece and Turkey. Sanctions might further deteriorate the existing situation and harm Turkey-EU relations and does not serve peace and stability in the Mediterranean.

Maritime Boundary Delimitation Agrements

According to international law, delimitation agreements (MBDs) should be based on equity and non-violation of the rights of third parties. MBDs should be have an equitable result and mutual consensus.

Greece signed Maritime Boundary Delimitation (MBD) agreements with some countries in the Eastern Mediterranean that violates Turkey’s rights. For instance, MBDs signed between Greece and Egypt distorts Turkey’s maritime boundary.

Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum

Eastern Mediterrenan Gas Forum, which excludes some countries of the Eastern mediterranean such as Turkey and Lebanon, established for exploring, drilling, sharing, hydracarbon reserves of the Eastern Mediterreanean.

Turkey’s exclusion from East-Med Gas Forum along with Greece and Greek Cypriot Administration offshore activities in the Eastern Mediterranean led Turkey to sign a bilateral maritime boundary agreement with Libya. Turkey is ready to launch maritime boundary delimitation talks with all Eastern Mediterranean countries except Greek Cypriot Administration (GCA). Turkey does not negotiate GCA which abolished the partnership state in Cyprus in 1960. Turkey does not recognize any unilateral actions of Greek Cypriots’ before the settlement of Cyprus issue.

Turkey sees the East Med Gas Forum as anti-Turkish. The Forum’s exclusionary structure has raised tension in the region rather than contributing to regional cooperation on energy. It is a mistake to leave Turkey out of East Med Gas Forum. Any project disregards Turkey, which has the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Turkish Cypriots, who are the co-owners of Cyprus island and have equal rights over the natural resources of the island, is doomed to fail.


Cyprus issue

Greek Cypriots MBD agrements with third countries violates both Turkey’s and Turkish Cypriots rights. In other words, Greece and Greek Cypriot Administration MBD agreements with some regional countries disregard the rights and interests of the Turkish Cypriots and negatively affect the negotiation on Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots are co-owners of the island.

Turkish Cypriots said “yes” to Annan Peace Plan for Cyprus wheras Greek Cypritos said “no” to Annan Peace Plan. After this referandum for Annan Peace Plan, isolation of Turkish Cypriots continued and Greek Cypriot Administration became the member of the European Union. Accepting Greek Cypriot Administration as a member of the EU before the settlement of the Cyprus issue was the biggest mistake that the EU did since it de facto affecte negatively the peace process in Cyprus island.

Under the current situation, Turkish Cypriots rights and interests from natural resources of Cyprus island should be guaranteed. This might be achieved through settlement of Cyprus issue. If this is not possible, it can be achieved through Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ proposal of 13 July 2019 based on determining jointly off-shore oil/gas activities including revenue sharing and funding of possible settlement. Yet, TRNC’s proposal to Greek Cypriots in 2019 for establishing a joint committee on gas drilling and sharing equally the gas revenue was refused by Greek Cypriot Administration.

In addition to topics mentioned briefly, there are other contentious issues such as territtorial waters, airspace etc. waiting to be discussed during 61st exploratory talks that will be held between Greece and Turkey. According to Lousanne Peace Treaty, Greece’s territorial waters is determined as 3 miles, Greece extended to 6 miles in 1936. Turkey followed the suit and extended its territorial waters to 6 miles. The extension by Greece of its territorial waters beyond 6 miles in the Aegean Sea that deprive Turkey from her basic right of access to high seas from her territorial waters, the economic benefits derived from the Aegean Sea, scientific research etc. is unacceptable to Turkey. If Greece extends its territorial waters from 6 miles to 12 miles, this is casus belli (reason for going to war) according to a decisison taken by the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1995.

Another contentious issue between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean Sea is problem of air space. Half of the Aegean Sea airspace over the high seas is international airspace that is not under the sovereignty of any nation.  According to international law, airspace cannot exceed territorial waters. As clearly stated at the Articles 1 and 2 the Chicago Convention of 1944 on civil aviation the breadth of national airspace has to correspond to the breadth of territorial sea. Although Greece’s territorial waters is 6 miles, Greece claims that its airspace is 10 miles. This is the main reason of the conflict on the Aegean airspace between Turkey and Greece.

The last but not least contentious issue between Turkey and Greece is the conflicting claims over the small islets and rocks in the Aegean Sea. Ownership of small islets and rocks that cannot sustain human habitation and have no economic life their own in the Aegean Sea is not determined by international treaties. Greeks another attempt to turn the Aegean Sea a Greek lake by changing the status of these islets and rocks through artificial settlements are unacceptable for Turkey.

Greece should see gains in collaboration with Turkey and give up its hostile policies towards Turkey. Cooperation established by dialogue between two countries provide benefits to both. That is why, exploratory talks and its positive outcomes are important in this respect.

Besides exploratory talks with Greece, Turkey is willing to negotiate with all countries in the region. Turkey recently called all countries that has coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean to convene a conference. We should ask that whether the EU can play a constructive role in this respect. More importantly, we should also ask that whether it is possible to establish an organization in the Eastern Mediterranean which is inclusive and comprehensive that inspired from the European Coal and Steel Community and EURATOM that made peace possible in Europe through cooperation on coal, steel and atomic energy.

Inclusive and comprehensive approach to the region is needed to solve disagreements in the Eastern Mediterreanean. The EU’s role should be constructive. This is possible if the EU manages to remain as an objective actor. Energy sources can serve as catalyst for peace and stability  and tool for settling disputes in the Eastern Mediterreanean if regional and global actors give it a chance.   The EU’s support for dialogue and negotiations between Turkey and Greece is important in this respect. Positive agenda urgently is needed between Turkey and the EU. Sanctions does not work for this purpose.  Germany’s efforts for mediation and NATO General Secretary’s effort for technical talks between Turkey and Greece are significant.

As I wrote in my article two years ago, “Without reaching a compromise or agreement through regional cooperation by putting aside political disputes, extracting gas in the region will be either too costly, unprofitable, or impossible. As long as some of the states do not give up their determination to drill for gas before settling their regional disputes, conflict and war will remain possibilities. Therefore, there will be no energy security, secure drilling, or free flow of gas from the region. Meanwhile, the issue will also fuel the existing tensions and disputes, thereby making other problems between eastern Mediterranean states unresolvable for the foreseeable future”.

Oil and gas prices went down because of COVID-19. Demand to oil and gas went down because of COVID-19. East Med Gas Pipeline (EMGP) would be the longest, deepest and most expensive underwater gas pipeline in the world. This pipeline is not attractive for investors due to a lot of risks it has and low return of investment. Briefly, there are technical and financial obstacles in EMGP.

There is more need than ever for constructive and pragmatic approach in the region that will make gas drilling and transfer more feasible, commercially viable, less risky and more importantly beneficial for all countries in the region through inclusionary and peaceful solutions. This would not only make gas drilling and transportation commercially feasible but also spread the spillover effects of this cooperation to other fields and sectors that can have potential turn the Eastern Mediterranean into a region of peace, stability and prosperity that laid down by Barcelona Process in 1995.


  • Aylin Ünver Noi (15/3/2018) Gas for Peace or War in Eastern Mediterranean?
  • Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Background Note on Aegean Disputes
  • Çağatay Erciyes, Eastern Mediterarranean Turkey’s Legal and Political Views
  • Malcolm N. Shaw (1991). International Law, Cambridge: Grotius Publications Limited
  • Sue Surkes (27 September 2020). Mistake to Leave Turkey out of new East Med gas club – International Expert