On August 6, Greece and Egypt signed an historical deal in an unexpected move, demarcating their maritime boundaries, and essentially declaring their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Several geopolitical factors across the Eastern Mediterranean and the Libyan front have contributed to this development, which could trigger a new round of tension in the region.
A Late But Important Step for Athens
Surprisingly, Greece has been one of the few countries to remain particularly idle in the initial demarcation of the EEZ. In a region where significant energy reserves have been confirmed, Greece has previously omitted to take the necessary steps in order to proceed to exploration and drilling in the respective area in contrast to numerous other countries nearby like Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel.
Now, the current Greek administration has taken remarkable action in a field that has been lifeless for decades. Last June Greece came to an agreement with Italy with regards to the maritime boundaries in the Ionian Sea and now Athens has signed a very important deal with Cairo. It should be noted here that in the case of Italy the negotiations have started in 1977 and in the case of Egypt in 2004.
Specific terms of each deal seem to be unfavorable for Greece: for instance in the latest one, 56 to 44 percent of territory was apportioned in favor of Egypt instead of following the equidistant principle. However, the current Greek government is seeking out to gain political capital through these moves, emphasizing that a necessary step for the Greek economy and the international standing of the country has been finally taken after such a long delay.
Geopolitical Gains for Both Sides
The Greek-Egyptian deal comes at a moment when both countries have a lot to gain from this development. On the one hand Greece manages to de facto override the so-called Turkish-Libyan MoU, as the coordinates of the deal are covering a major part of the area established in the questionable pact between Ankara and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA). Once the deal and the resulting map have been officially published and adopted by the United Nations, then Athens will have also cancelled de jure the Turkish claims.
At the same time, Egypt creates an unwanted situation for both Turkey and the GNA; we should consider here that the ongoing Libyan conflict has gradually developed into a proxy war between Ankara and Cairo, therefore any action that could worsen the Turkish position and standing in the region. This is definitely welcomed by Egyptian President Sisi. The domestic politics of Egypt are also relevant to this decision, considering that several elements of the Egyptian opposition are firmly supported by Turkey. The Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim organization with expanded popular support from a part of the Egyptian population, poses a significant internal threat for President Sisi; it is well known that the Brotherhood receives considerable financial, logistical and political support from Turksih President Erdogan. Since the Turkish support is a key factor for the power of the Brotherhood in Egypt, every blow to Ankara’s prestige is a push towards the stability and prevalence of Sisi’s regime.
Turkey’s Angry Reaction
Turkey responded fiercely, shortly after the announcement of the deal. Erdogan stated after Friday prayers that Greece acted in a deceptive way and the that the deal is worthless. The Turkish President also claimed that he backed down after the recent provocative actions in the Aegean Sea as a gesture of good will and just because of the German intervention. He also suggested that new drilling activity will soon start in the suggested area, while Turkish vessels are once again sailing within the Cypriot EEZ now. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has also used similar rhetoric, describing the deal null and void, with Turkish Press encouraging these claims.
Finally, just after the announcement by the Greek-Egyptian side, the Antalya Navtex Station issued a NAVTEX advising that a region between the Greek islands of Kastelorizo and Rhodes will be used for a Turkish gunnery exercise on August 10 and 11. The Navigational Telex has alerted the Hellenic Armed Forces and has prompted the Hellenic Navy to closely monitor the area.
There Are Potential Issues with the Deal
The agreement with Egypt is being promoted by the Greek administration and most of the major country media as a huge national success. Even though the deal could be perceived as a smart move to essentially cancel the Turkish-GNA MoU, and finally boost the Greek presence in the eastern Mediterranean, the terms and specifics of the agreement raise some substantial concerns.
One is that the deal excludes the area east of the Meridian after 28° East; even though there have been disagreements between Cairo and Athens, and reportedly those disagreements have blocked the two parties from reaching a deal all this time, the main point of concern has been the island complex of Kastelorizo. But surprisingly Athens has also decided to leave out a part of Rhodes, a major Greek island westwards, in the proximity of Turkey.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias stated that this move would leave space for further negotiations in the future among Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and ideally Turkey. However the Greek move could be interpreted as a way to achieve a desired balance for the Greek Government. It is a way of cancelling the already disputed Turkish-Libyan MoU, gaining political capital in-country, but at the same time avoiding the area that has been the main friction point with Ankara and therefore indicating that there is the intention to cooperate and work on a possible bilateral agreement with the “troubling neighbor”.
Unintentionally Empowering Turkey?
In potential future talks, this latest move from Athens has actually provided Ankara with an additional negotiating card, since leaving parts of the islands out of the EEZ agreement actually aligns with the Turkish allegation that islands are entitled to limited EEZ rights. Taking this line of thought thought further and keeping in mind the unofficial trilateral meeting among Greece, Turkey and Germany prior to the aimless tension incident of late July, one could say that a pretext for a Greek-Turkish deal could be unofficially already on the table of negotiations, with the surrounding tension being probably used just to manipulate the domestic audiences of each country. The developments to follow in the next weeks and months will confirm or disprove this claim.