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Troubled Waters in Eastern Med: The Case of Crete’s EEZ

Crete EEZ
A satellite image of Crete. Credit: NASA/Public Domain

The island of Crete illustrates how Turkey is attempting to curtail the exercise of Greece’s sovereign rights regarding the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

By Dr. Stathis Palassis

The island of Crete is situated between the Aegean and Libyan Seas. It has strategic and symbolic importance, as it defines the southernmost border of both Greece and the European Union.

It also presents an interesting case that illustrates how Turkey is attempting to curtail the exercise of Greece’s sovereign rights under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), particularly as regards the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Following the discovery of natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Israel (2009/2010), Cyprus (2011), and Egypt (2015), significant findings have been made south and west of Crete (2023).

These reserves are important, both in securing the energy needs of the states in whose territories the deposits are found, as well as in lessening the European Union’s reliance on Russia as an energy source.

Turkey’s disruptive acts in the Eastern Mediterranean

The region has become the focal point of an energy security race. In its quest for control on resources, and guided by the expansive policies of the “Blue Homeland”, Turkey has engaged in all manner of disruptive acts in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Its unequivocal declaration that no resource exploitation is acceptable without its involvement clearly evidences Turkey’s extra-territorial energy aspirations in the region.

Central to Turkey’s stance is its minority position on the international law of the sea. Turkey was one of only four states to vote against the adoption of the LOSC, due to its dissatisfaction regarding the breadth of the territorial sea, its delimitation, and the regime of islands.

Since then, Turkey maintains a position of non-ratification, demonstrating a systematic disregard for the international law of the sea and a preference instead for its own interpretation of legality.

Turkish threats and provocation, amounting to coercion, have created an untenable position for Greece, in that it is unable to freely exercise its sovereign rights under the LOSC.

Pursuant to the LOSC, all states have the sovereign right to a territorial sea of up to twelve nautical miles (Articles 2 and 3).

Greece currently has a twelve nautical mile territorial sea westward, while in the Aegean and south of Crete its territorial sea is six nautical miles, with the right to claim up to twelve nautical miles.

Extending the breadth of the territorial sea means extending State sovereign territory, and in this regard, Turkey has declared casus belli should Greece extend  its territorial sea in the Aegean by even one mile. Most recently, the declaration of casus belli was extended to include Crete.

In maintaining that any act that expands Greek sovereign territory is considered a hostile act, Turkey is restricting the exercise of Greece’s sovereignty and violating its right to self-determination.

Furthermore, pursuant to the LOSC, states also have a sovereign right to claim an EEZ of up to 200 nautical miles (Articles 55 and 57). Greece has claimed an EEZ in areas that border to the west with Albania and Italy, to the south with Egypt and Libya and to the east with Cyprus and Turkey.

Recent exploration has revealed significant gas reserves in areas that include the west, south and southwest of Crete. Involved in the exploration and exploitation activities are the Greek Government, along with the United States-based energy giant, ExxonMobil and HelleniQ Energy, Greece’s largest oil refiner.

Crete EEZ
The areas west and southwest of Crete where Exxon Mobil conducts surveys for gas. Public Domain

Turkey claims that Crete cannot generate an EEZ

On the other hand, and based on its unique view of international law, Turkey claims that Crete cannot generate an EEZ as it is an island and islands do not have the right to claim extended maritime zones beyond the limits of the territorial sea. This position is not just a minority view, it is unique to Turkey.

Furthermore, Turkey has been deploying its exploratory ships to the area and raising tensions, as was the case during the summer of 2020. States do not have the right to enter other states’ EEZ with the purpose of resource exploration/exploitation.

Underpinning any kind of sustainable resource exploration/exploitation activities in the Eastern Mediterranean are the bilateral maritime delimitation agreements (the ‘Agreements’). The purpose of these Agreements is to accommodate states with opposite or adjacent coastlines where there are geographic constraints on claiming an EEZ up to the 200 nautical mile limit.

The agreements provide legal certainty on the basis of equity. By creating a median line that equitably accommodates the overlapping claims and mutually recognizes each other’s territory, a boundary is formed separating the EEZ of each state.

Furthermore, the median line can be adjusted based on the existence of relevant circumstances pertaining to the situation in question, such as geographic, economic and historical.

In this regard, Greece has secured delimitation agreements with Egypt and Italy, while with Albania the two states have submitted the matter to the International Court of Justice.

The Agreements entered into are valid as created pursuant to Article 74 of the LOSC, in that maritime delimitation agreements can only be affected by opposite or adjacent states.

On the other hand, the Turkey-Libya Agreements that traverse diagonally across Greece’s EEZ lack validity as per Article 74 and constitute a blatant attempt to infringe on the rights of third states in clear defiance of international law.

The conflicting positions of Greece and Turkey are not easily reconciled. As an island, Crete generates the right, under international law, to a twelve-nautical mile territorial sea and to extended maritime zones, including an EEZ.

However, provocative conduct and hostile relations, characterized by a continuing threat of the use of force, make exercising sovereignty and the right to self-determination particularly difficult.

Instead, on the basis of good neighborly relations, and consistently with the LOSC, states should respect each other’s territorial integrity, political independence and right to self-determination. It is against such a backdrop that all the states of the Eastern Mediterranean can cooperate and enter into bilateral delimitation agreements.

By adhering to the spirit and letter of international law, political and legal certainty is achieved. This allows for harmonious and sustainable resource exploration/
exploitation activities of states within their respective EEZs, particularly at this crucial moment in time.

Dr. Stathis Palassis is a Greek-Australian lawyer with doctoral qualifications in law. He was admitted into legal practice as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia. He later was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney.

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