Italy and Greece Draw the Line in the Ionian Sea

Following over 40 years of deliberations, Greece and Italy have reached an agreement on delimiting an exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The agreement between the two neighboring Mediterranean countries was signed by foreign ministers Nikos Dendias and Luigi Di Maio during the latter’s visit to Athens on June 9.

Details of the EEZ Agreement

An extension of a 1977 bilateral accord, the EEZ agreement broke a decades-long stalemate in the Ionian Sea. Negotiation details were been kept under wraps for several years, mainly due to concerns raised by the Italian side over fishing rights.

The agreement also confirms the right of islands to have maritime zones, a point of particular importance for Greece in its perennial dispute with Turkey, which denies that islands have such rights.

The deal clears the way for both Greece and Italy to explore and exploit their maritime resources. Dendias and Di Maio had previously met in Rome earlier this year to discuss further cooperation between the two countries, in particular the energy sector, given Greece’s and Italy’s partnership on the EastMed gas pipeline project.

Mounting Tension in the Eastern Mediterranean

This development comes at a point of mounting tension in the wider Eastern Mediterranean region. Turkey has signed a controversial memorandum of understanding with the Tripoli-based government in Libya and claims exploration and drilling rights in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean overlapping with the Greek continental shelf. The memorandum was rejected by opposing Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, as well as Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel.

In an effort to counter Turkey’s actions in the region, Greece will seek to build upon its agreement with Italy by striking similar deals with Albania and Egypt. Athens and Tirana had reached an initial agreement in 2009, but this was overturned later by the Albanian Constitutional Court.

What Comes Next?

The Greek Foreign Minister also plans to visit Egypt soon in order to restart discussions for a maritime agreement between the two countries which would render any understanding between Turkey and Libya void. Bilateral relations between Cairo and Athens are currently at a high point, especially since the establishment of a trilateral cooperation mechanism with the inclusion of Cyprus in 2014, while both countries have different reasons to block Turkey’s attempts to increase its influence in the region.

Despite calls from both sides to resume negotiations for the resolution of bilateral problems, the situation in the Aegean remains fluid. During a press conference held last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed press reports that Turkey would explore and develop oil and gas fields in the Mediterranean together with the Libyan government. In response, Greek Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos stated that his country is ready for all possible events, including a military confrontation with Turkey, should provocations from Ankara continue.

With the war of proxies still raging in Libya and without any sustainable political solution in sight, the Eastern Mediterranean EEZ puzzle remains a tough one for all parties involved, especially since the notions of international law and sovereign rights seem to be interpreted differently according to each nation’s own ideas and convictions.