Rough waters, once more

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Two months after Greece and Italy had signed an agreement for the establishment-and- delimitation of their respective EEZs (superposed on the pre-existant one over their continental shelves, dating back to 1977/78), Athens succeeded in signing an agreement with Cairo for a – partial – maritime zones delimitation south-westwards. Starting from the eastern tip of Crete at the 26th meridian (carefully avoiding by a large margin to encroach Libyan claims) and all the way to the 28th meridian (that bisects the island of Rhodes).

For Greece, the compromise reached with Egypt has a cardinal importance insofar it clashes directly – the maps provided to illustrate the EEZ delimitation clearly show it – with the attempted accord between Turkey and Libya (the al-Sarraj government based in Tripoli; the Libyan Parliament refused to give its seal of approval) in the same broad area of the Mediterranean. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was exuberant, claiming that the Greek-Egyptian EEZ deal “sends the Turkish-Libyan MOU to the trash-bin”. His Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry was more reserved (“the agreement allows both countries to move forward in maximizing resources available in the EEZ”), but it was Shoukry’s  own spokesman who issued the official statement.

Why was Egypt interested in compromising with Greece for the delimitation  of its EEZ – especially so once a 55/45 shareout is accepted by Athens? For one, its energy reserves in the (globally significant and largely explored) Zohr natural gas field are unified with the promise northwards; then, its central political role in the Eastern Mediterranean is recognized by the EU, insofar the latter is influenced (e.g. at level of Summit and Foreign Affairs Ministers official pronouncements) by Greek and Cypriot positions. The 2003 Egyptian-Cypriot EEZ agreement was a first step for Cairo, but the added Greek link clearly enhances relations with Europe – the increased French interest in geopolitical terms and the Italian once in geo-economic ones underscore this dimension (ENI is the operator of the massive Zohr Field of the Shorouk concession awarded in 2013).

Moreover, the at -Sisi government in power in Cairo since 2013, after the overthrow of the Morsi Islamic government, fears the (Turkish-assisted) Muslim Βrotherhood’s once more increased influence. Turkey, it should be noted, also assists militarily – if not with boots on the ground – the al-Sarraj government in Libya , which is traditionally viewed by Cairo as its (West-looking) strategic depth; here too, Islamist influences play a role.

Promptly after the Athens-Cairo EEZ agreement was announced, Turkey angrily called off planned bilateral “exploratory talks” with Greece intended to de-escalate the tensions that almost led to a flare-up in July. Given that such de-escalation had been mediated by the EU/the German Presidency, with behind-the-scenes US support, the next step is a matter of suspense. All the more so, since Turkey issued a NAVTEX for live-ammunition naval exercises in the area of Kastellorizo on August 10/11.

Talking of agreements, the Greek-Egyptian EEZ one is supposed to be introduced to the two countries Parliaments for accelerated ratification, so that it would be formally notified to, deposited with and published by the UN Secretariat. The “opposed” Turkish-Libyan MOU, albeit entered into on November 2019 and promptly notified to the UN, has not succeeded in completing its cycle since it lacks parliamentary ratification in Libya. (To be true, neither has the Greek-Italian EEZ agreement started its parliamentary trek).

In Greece, Opposition parties were from cool to aggressively opposed to the EEZ deal with Egypt. The main Opposition party, SYRIZA, talks of a “fast-track agreement” that does not adequately deal with Turkish aggressive policies and that may well create dangerous precedents; the alternative, to SYRIZA, would be for Greece to declare unilaterally 12-mile territorial waters South-and-East of Crete, while also appealing to the EU for sanctions against Turkey for its earlier aggressive behaviour.

Smaller Opposition party KINAL – ex-ruling PASOK – demands a comprehensive EEZ deal with Egypt while acknowledging the usefulness of the deal achieved to “drive back” the Turkish-Libyan EEZ, but expressing fears of “future complications”. The Communist Party came out blazing about the “risk of painful compromises” ahead.

Ankara attacked the Greek-Egyptian agreement, thus highlighting its importance; Cairo promptly expressed dismay and pointed that such reaction came before the whole agreement was known (possibly a reference to the fact that the partial EEZ delimitation leaves room for easternmost maritime areas to be delimited by multi-lateral agreements, i.e. with Cyprus and Turkey). As to the – ever-present – US, they reiterated their support to “peaceful solutions” and so on and so forth.