To capitalise on twelve years of normalisation, and at a time when both could benefit from a foreign policy success, Greece and Turkey should settle their expensive, outdated and stressful stand-off over Aegean Sea maritime zones and related issues.
Turkey and Greece: Time to Settle the Aegean Dispute, the latest International Crisis Group policy briefing, identifies favourable circumstances for resolving the long-standing issues. While Ankara fears losing access to open seas and the Aegean continental shelf, and Athens worries about the security of hundreds of its islands, continuing deadlock is costly for both. Greece, in financial crisis, needs to reduce a disproportionate military budget. Turkey’s new government, elected with a strong majority in June, needs to ensure its neighbour’s stability and further assert itself as a responsible regional player.
“The dispute is far more about the domestic politics and psychology of Greece and Turkey than real security concerns”, says Didem Akyel, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Analyst. “Lack of political will to let go of maximalist positions and confront popular opinion with compromises has kept the negotiations in the starting blocks”.
Many of the Aegean disagreements flared up after the 1974 Athens-backed coup on Cyprus and subsequent Turkish occupation of the northern part of the island. Greece argued that its May 1995 ratification of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gave it an inalienable right to extend its territorial seas to twelve nautical miles from the present six, to which Turkey’s parliament responded with a war threat that has not been revoked. An agreement on territorial seas is crucial to solve other sensitive Aegean issues, such as delineation of airspace, continental shelf, and, eventually, exclusive economic zones.
The two countries should publicly acknowledge that each has rights and interests in their shared sea and negotiate special arrangements for the Aegean in line with UNCLOS’s general principles on equity and special circumstances, including agreement on median lines where their territorial seas overlap and maintainance of high seas corridors to major Turkish ports and the Turkish straits to the Black Sea. They should also agree that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will adjudicate any remaining disputes about where territorial sea boundaries should be drawn and, later, about the continental shelf issue.
Turkey’s unofficial suspension of military over-flights of inhabited Greek islands this year is a good start to building the trust needed to reach such agreements. Both countries should reduce military activity in the area. Once they reach a deal on other aspects of the dispute, Greece should meet its commitment to demilitarise Aegean islands, and Turkey should disband its Fourth Army or move it away from the coast.
The deadlocked Cyprus problem is still a factor, but both sides have distanced themselves from the idea that its solution is a precondition for an Aegean settlement. Since Cyprus is peaceful, they should further delink it from Aegean issues, although progress in the Aegean could positively impact talks on a Cyprus settlement.
“If Ankara and Athens take the final steps to settle their Aegean dispute, this would both help persuade Greek Cypriots of Turkey’s goodwill and polish Turkey’s EU membership negotiation credentials”, says Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director. “The time is ripe to resolve this costly, outmoded, and increasingly artificial dispute. It may be off the international community’s radar, but the risk of a flare-up remains”.