Tensions continue to rise in Greece and Turkey’s maritime border dispute

By David Read, BA History Student at Bristol University

Tensions are rising in the eastern Mediterranean as a defiant Turkey comes into conflict with Greece over maritime borders and drilling rights. 

The two NATO members have been in a war of words since August after a Turkish exploration vessel began prospecting for oil and gas deposits in disputed waters around the Greek island of Kastellorizo. The waters surrounding the tiny island, which lies only 2 miles from the Turkish coast, are now at the centre of long-standing conflict over maritime borders. On one hand, in compliance with the United Nations Law of the Sea, Greece asserts its sovereignty over seas surrounding the island as an exclusive economic zone. However, this is not accepted by Turkey, which was not a signatory to the Law of Sea. This disagreement over where maritime borders should lie is central to the ongoing dispute.

Such is the severity of this dispute that the region has become increasingly militarised in recent months. In mid-August, a Greek warship collided with a Turkish frigate that was escorting a Turkish exploration vessel. Both sides have carried out military exercises in the region, with Greece’s efforts being joined by France, Italy, Cyprus and the UAE; a sign of growing global concern over Turkey’s actions. Greek troops have also been sent to Kastellorizo as a demonstration of force and only last week the Greek PM, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, announced new military spending plans, including the purchase of 18 French fighter jets. 

The rhetoric has also heightened. Turkish president Recep Erdogan has stated that “Turkey will take what is its right in the Mediterranean, in the Aegean and in the Black Sea.” A recent discovery of a large oilfield in the Black Sea has done seemingly little to dampen Ankara’s appetite for eastern Mediterranean spoils. Erdogan has also warned Greece that the country was “either going to understand the language of politics and diplomacy, or in the field with painful experiences.” 

Turkey certainly has the economic and military power to get its way with Greece alone, but Athens has rallied powerful allies in Europe. Leaders from the informal EU Med Group, a group of 7 southern European and Mediterranean countries which includes Greece, Cyprus, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Malta, met last week and issued a joint statement of “full support and solidarity with Cyprus and Greece,” echoing a statement from a previous EU Council meeting held in August. The group also called for Turkey “to end its unilateral and illegal activities.” Last July, EU officials imposed sanctions on Turkey for conducting drilling within disputed Cypriot waters, where large natural gas deposits have been found. Further sanctions against Turkey are expected to be announced next week in an EU summit. 

Attempts to de-escalate the conflict have shown little signs of success so far. The German foreign minister, who rushed to Athens and Ankara last month to broker a dialogue, came out of the talks warning that both sides were “playing with fire, and any spark – however small – could lead to a disaster.” He urged for “signals of de-escalation and a readiness for dialogue.” A NATO meeting between Greek and Turkish military officials that will be held this week is the latest attempt to diffuse military tensions.  However, for the time being, the question of whether any success will come of it remains open. 

Any backing down by either side will result in a loss of drilling rights to a potentially huge reserve of hydrocarbons that would provide energy security and much needed exports. Furthermore, backing down would cause serious reputational damage to Greece and the EU, with such a scenario being viewed as further evidence that Europe is unable to assert itself without American support. Yet, both countries continue to be resilient in their efforts. Indeed, with international law and a mounting list of European allies on its side, Greece remains determined to assert its sovereignty. Similarly, the ever defiant Turkey, whose role in Libya and Syria is at odds with its western allies, and its purchasing of Russian missiles led to its kicking out of the US-led F-35 programme, is equally determined to follow an independent path. Erdogan has consistently shrugged off western criticism in the past and a change in habit now seems unlikely. With both sides digging in their heels, tough negotiations indeed lay ahead. 

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