Is there a solution to the Aegean dispute?


The disputes over the Aegean Sea clearly constitute the “core” of Greek-Turkish relations. Each side claims to be exclusively in the right, and that the other side is always being provocative and in the wrong.

Europe map rennaissance


The two countries need to abandon the “zero sum” approach, according to which one’s loss is the other one’s gain. It is important to cultivate the belief that it is possible to find solutions that will be mutually beneficial for both countries’ interests. In current conditions, the perception that the neighbor’s point of view and interests need to be taken into consideration is central. Peaceful dispute resolution entails dialogue, mediation, negotiations.

Turkey adopts an aggressive rhetoric and tactics, in an effort to clearly establish that it cannot be excluded from the settlement of energy issues in the region. Sometimes it resorts to the threat or use of force, which is unacceptable. However, it does not appear to intend to provoke an actual incident of military engagement with Greece. Nevertheless, an “accident” cannot be ruled out and it should be avoided at all costs.


Sea and Air

Based on the current status quo, that is internationally recognized including by Greece and Turkey, the Aegean Sea is 35% Greek. It is mostly international (56%) and to a lesser degree Turkish (9%). Consequently, Turkey, as a coastal country and under international law, has legitimate interests in the international air space and in the international waters.

There is a general assumption among people well-versed on this matter that Greece will not be able to assert its right under the International Law of the Sea to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles in the Aegean Sea. Not so much because Turkey has designated such a move a casus belli, but primarily due to opposition from all the nations with powerful international roles, as well as maritime and military interests, in the region (USA, Russia, etc.). 

It is not by chance that no Greek government has proceeded to implement this until now. As time goes on, Greece is in danger of losing any and all negotiating value inherent in this right, whereas, if it chooses not to implement it, in return it can gain significant considerations in other matters.

The fact that Greece has extended its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles only in the Ionian Sea must be exploited as a message to Turkey – that our country does not view the Aegean as a “Greek pond”. And this action can become part of a broader strategy to resolve bilateral disputes.

On the other hand, the 10-mile range of Greek airspace that was established by a simple Presidential Decree in 1931 on the “policing of civil aviation” is a global paradox, since Greek territorial waters only extend to 6 miles. 

The realization has matured, among a broad spectrum of forces in Greece, that the discrepancy between airspace and the underlying territorial waters creates complications, is a constant source of tensions in the Aegean, and does not have international support.

The solution is to bring our national airspace and territorial waters in line. This could be implemented with different ranges at different locations depending on the geophysical layout of the coastline and island complexes (version one: 6, 8, 10 and 12 miles at different locations; version two: extend to 7-8 miles everywhere; version three: extend to 10-12 miles for the mainland coastline and 6 miles for islands, etc.). But always following deliberations with all neighboring countries on the Aegean, the Black Sea countries that use sea lanes through the Aegean, and international naval forces.

Also, specific free passage lanes (air corridors)  through Athens FIR could be established to allow Turkish fighter planes access to international airspace, in order to avoid dangerous and expensive “dogfights”.    

Following these arrangements, Greece and Turkey could sign an arbitration agreement to appeal to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, for the purpose of delimiting the continental shelf and establishing Exclusive Economic Zones.

If the negotiations of the previous stage are not successful, then other issues regarding the Aegean Sea may also need to be referred to the Court at The Hague, because the resolution of some of them is a prerequisite for resolving the rest.


Exploitation of resources

Once delimitation has been successfully carried out, it would be possible to engage in joint exploration and joint exploitation of the Aegean’s natural resources (or part thereof). This could occur bilaterally or with the participation of other countries, international and regional organizations, and large corporations in an international consortium that could also secure the necessary funds.

A critical issue is that we need to decide on the development model that we want to implement. Greece earns significant revenue from tourism, and the protection of the environment is of primary importance. Are we ready to accept the destructive consequences of an accident at a drilling facility, or a leak from a tanker carrying the products of drilling, with the ensuing oil spills, etc.?

When the whole world is moving towards reducing dependence on hydrocarbons, will we instead begin investing in them now? Europe will be completely fossil fuel-free by 2050. Who will buy the natural gas or oil that will take years to become available for exploitation?

And certainly, we must not become embroiled in impractical, pharaonic, costly and environmentally harmful plans, such as the EastMed pipeline under consideration.


Relations between the European Union and Turkey

A second Helsinki would be helpful in regulating Greek-Turkish relations. That is, not the elimination of Turkey’s European prospects, but the exact opposite. A process of reestablishment of relations between the European Union and Turkey on new foundations. This could take the form of a privileged, enhanced “special relationship” that would not exclude the possibility of full accession in the future.  

The decision of the Helsinki European Council Summit in December 1999 had inaugurated a new era in Euro-Turkish and Greek-Turkish relations. At the time, Turkey had a strong interest in promoting its candidacy for full EU membership, while Greece promoted the accession of Cyprus. Turkey had undertaken the obligation to resolve its “border and other” disputes with EU member states (meaning Greece) through negotiations with a binding timeline. If such resolution was not accomplished within a specified timeframe, Turkey would be obliged to appeal to the International Court of Justice at The Hague to settle such disputes.

But after the change in government that occurred in the meantime, Greece changed its mind, and the binding timeline was suspended. A great opportunity was lost, because the dialogue did continue, but it became endless.

In the context of the “exploratory talks” between the two Ministries of Foreign Affairs that started back then, from time to time several issues regarding the maritime and airspace status of the Aegean as well as other bilateral matters have been discussed, in addition to the continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) delimitation. On some issues there has been rapprochement, while on others not. The problem lies in the fact that the political leaderships were not ready to proceed, due to the political circumstances sometimes in Greece and sometimes in Turkey.


The Cyprus Issue and Greek-Turkish relations

Any escalation between Greece and Turkey has adverse consequences for Cyprus. Turkey maintains heavily armed military forces on the island and in that respect, it has the advantage. Any tension may spread to the island. Talks on the Cyprus Issue would be cancelled for an extended period of time, as the climate would not be conducive to negotiations. This would be convenient for those who seek to render the partition of Cyprus permanent and official – but not those who pursue the island’s reunification.

As long as the Cyprus Issue remains unresolved, the problem with Turkey’s drilling activities off the coast of Cyprus will persist. That is because Turkey and Cyprus have not reached an agreement to establish Exclusive Economic Zones between them. The safe approach would be to find a solution – in the form of a compromise – to the Cyprus Issue. A Bi-zonal Bicommunal Federation based on the already agreed principle of political equality of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.

Both the rejection, by the Greek Cypriot side, of the Annan Plan in 2004, and the stance of the Greek Cypriot leadership at the negotiations on the Cyprus Issue held at Crans-Montana, Switzerland in 2017, have generated mistrust in the international community about whether Greek Cypriots truly desire a solution to the Cyprus Issue.

Cyprus cannot continue to recklessly squander the diplomatic capital it earned with its accession to the EU. Complaints about Turkey’s stance on drilling are not enough. The Greek Cypriot leadership must be prepared to recommence negotiations and it must clearly state its support for a resolution based on the Framework proposed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres.

The involvement of the Cyprus Issue in Greek-Turkish relations should not hinder the normalization of such relations. Because the normalization of Greek-Turkish relations can contribute to a just, stable and sustainable solution to the Cyprus Issue.


Arrangements and de-escalation

Greece could take the initiative and submit proposals which, if implemented, would resolve several outstanding issues and help improve the climate between the two countries:

a) Establish dialogue to draw the baseline, which currently does not exist, along the maritime borders of Greece and Turkey, north of the Dodecanese complex and up to the Evros border region.

b) Impose, throughout the year, a moratorium prohibiting both countries from carrying out expensive, large-scale military exercises. 

c) Concluding a Greek-Turkish agreement on arming de-escalation under international guarantees.

d) Proceed to the reciprocal demilitarization of the Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean and the coastal areas of Turkey directly opposite.