Turkey and Greece: Time to Settle the Aegean Dispute
Turkey and Greece: Time to Settle the Aegean Dispute
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Turkey-Greece: A Shimmer of Hope in the Eastern Mediterranean
Briefing 64 / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Turkey and Greece: Time to Settle the Aegean Dispute

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and at a time when both could benefit from a foreign policy success, Greece and Turkey should settle their expensive, outdated and stressful stand-off over Aegean Sea maritime zones and related issues.

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I. Overview

Normalisation between Greece and Turkey has come far since tensions in the Aegean Sea threatened war three times between the NATO allies. Trade, investments and mutual cooperation and tourism have taken off, sidelining issues like the Cyprus problem, which first stirred up the Aegean dispute in the early 1970s. Frequent bilateral talks and Turkey’s unofficial 2011 suspension of military over-flights of Greek islands suggest that the time may be ripe for a solution to that dispute. Turkey’s strong new government elected in June is interested in further asserting itself as a responsible regional power, solving problems in its neighbourhood and clearing obstacles to its European Union (EU) accession. With Athens in the midst of a financial crisis and needing any economic lift and increased security it can find, this unnecessary and still potentially dangerous conflict should be resolved. A good strategy would be a synchronised set of steps to prepare public opinion on both sides, leading to a bilateral agreement and including, if needed, eventual recourse to international adjudication.

Even if the relative calm of the last years has pushed the Aegean dispute off the international community’s radar, risks of a flare-up remain. Greeks worry about the safety of hundreds of islands much closer to Turkey than to their mainland. Turks fear being cut off from most of the Aegean and farther seas should Greece unilaterally extend the breadth of its territorial sea and establish new maritime jurisdiction zones. The Cyprus reunification negotiations and Turkey’s EU accession process are reaching stalemate. But if Ankara and Athens settle their Aegean dispute, that step could help both to persuade Greek Cypriots of Turkey’s goodwill and to polish Turkey’s EU credentials.

Much of the disagreement over the Aegean flared up after Athens engineered a 1974 coup in Nicosia intended to unite Cyprus with Greece, and Turkey invaded, resulting in its occupation of the north of the island. The dispute has now grown beyond maritime zones (territorial seas and continental shelf) to cover airspace, over-flights, militarisation of Aegean islands and flight information regions. The Aegean Sea’s geography is complex, with more than 2,400 islands, mostly Greek, but also high seas shipping routes that are Turkey’s economic and security lifeline.

Greece argues that international law, as detailed in the widely-ratified 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), gives it an inalienable right to extend its territorial seas to twelve nautical miles from the present six. It describes the delimitation of the continental shelf as the main problem and says it must be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), not bilateral negotiations. For years, Turkey was reluctant to go to the ICJ on Aegean issues and insisted on bilateral talks, although since 1997 it does not rule out judicial means based on mutual consent. Turkey fears that a Greek territorial seas extension could cut off its access to high seas shipping routes and to the Aegean continental shelf. Its parliament has threatened war if Greece unilaterally extends its territorial seas, and Ankara makes symbolic displays of strength that until recently included military flights over inhabited Greek islands. All, including Black Sea states that navigate through the Aegean for access to the Mediterranean and beyond, want to ensure safe, open access and passage.

Today, both sides take a more constructive approach. Their foreign ministries have met more than 50 times for “exploratory talks” since 2002, with a view to taking the continental shelf dispute and possibly other unresolved matters to the ICJ. In private, they agree that circumstances have changed enough to settle the dispute, which is far more about domestic politics and psychology than real security concerns. But lack of political will to let go of maximalist positions and confront popular opinion with compromises has kept negotiations in the starting blocks.

This is short-sighted. Greece and Turkey would both benefit from solving the long and costly dispute. The economic advantages of ending mock military sparring are especially clear for Greece. But Turkey would also benefit economically, and, as importantly, a settlement could reinvigorate its EU relationship and increase the credibility of its “zero problems” foreign policy with neighbours. A process to achieve this could include the following joint steps:

  • First stage: Turkey formally ends over-flights of inhabited Greek islands. Greece pledges to demilitarise Aegean islands in accordance with commitments it has made in a series of earlier treaties, once a comprehensive Aegean agreement with Turkey is reached and ratified. Turkey pledges to disband its Fourth Army simultaneously or relocate it away from the Aegean.
  • Second stage: both announce readiness to negotiate special Aegean arrangements in line with general UNCLOS principles on equity and special circumstances. Greece publicly recognises Turkey, as a littoral state, has rights that must be taken into account in delimiting Aegean maritime zones and notes such matters have been arbitrated or adjudicated by other states with coastlines on a shared sea. Turkey publicly commits to ratify UNCLOS and recognises Greece’s international law right in principle to extend its territorial seas to twelve nautical miles. The sides jointly declare that negotiations will include maintaining high seas corridors to major Turkish ports and the Turkish straits to the Black Sea that can be used for international navigation.
  • Third stage: Greece and Turkey negotiate on delimitation of their territorial seas based in principle on a twelve nautical mile limit. They agree on median lines where these limits overlap and on a reduction of Greek territorial seas where necessary to ensure reasonable high seas corridors for international shipping through the Aegean. They agree in advance that they will authorise the ICJ to adjudicate, pursuant to the principles listed in stages two and three, any dispute about where territorial sea boundaries should be drawn.

Fourth stage: Turkey and Greece address any remaining issues, particularly on the continental shelf, and thereafter refer any remaining differences to the ICJ.

Istanbul/Athens/Brussels, 19 July 2011

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