A gas dispute or an attempt to shake up the regional order?

Axel Gehring

The Turkish-Greek tensions at the edge of the Aegean

In a televised speech on 30 August 2020 in the presence of senior figures from the country’s military, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared: “We will not run away from combat, nor will we shrink from it when we have to mourn martyrs. But are those squaring up to us in the Mediterranean and the disputed zones ready to make the same sacrifices?” This was widely seen as a threat of war, whether realistic or not – a threshold had been crossed.

A few days later, it was announced that a gas field had been found in the Black Sea. Although these announcements have turned out to be less significant than was originally made out, they did convey the message that being tough on the Aegean question is worth it not only as a political gesture but also for economic reasons. Since then, the buzz around the discovery of gas in the Black Sea has calmed down again, but the overall situation remains tense. In any case, this raises the fundamental question whether the conflict itself is really just a dispute over resources.

A particular challenge facing the EU as it seeks a peaceful solution is how it can manage to curb Greece’s most extreme demands without turning a blind eye to the special nature of Turkish nationalism, with the potentially far greater economic and military clout it can call on and its desire to completely transform the regional order. Let us first look at the historical background to gain a better understanding of the situation.

From Lausanne to the gas dispute

The Turkish War of Independence (1919-1922) not only put an end to the Greek invasion that followed the First World War, but also led, as the de facto continuation of the Young Turk ideology, to the expulsion of the majority of Turkey’s Greek population, some of whom had lived in Anatolia for thousands of years. Despite this bloody past, Turkey and Greece enjoyed relatively good diplomatic relations through the early decades of the Turkish republic. In general, territorial issues were settled amicably by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which officially recognised the Turks’ control over Anatolia, acquired during the war. This meant that they had achieved their main goal in the conflict. While a very small number of islands just off the Anatolian coast belonged to Turkey, the vast majority were part of Greece. For many of these Greek islands, the sea border between the two countries that was decided on is only a few miles from the Turkish coast.

While the Treaty of Lausanne does not say this explicitly, in this agreement the Greek islands were not regarded as small offshore enclaves, but rather as part of a country, Greece, consisting of its mainland on the one hand and its island archipelago on the other. The free passage of Turkish ships through the Aegean Sea was not affected by the demarcations (six nautical miles of territorial waters) around the islands, and the Treaty of Lausanne led Turkish historians to paint a picture of a great national victory in the War of Independence.

The treaty, though, handed the Dodecanese archipelago at the south-eastern fringe of the Aegean to Italy, which at that time was expanding its power in the region. It only came under Greek rule in 1948 following the defeat of the Italian fascist regime in the Second World War. However, the small Dodecanese island of Megisti/Kastellorizo, which nowadays has a population of around 500, is relatively far away from the rest of the Dodecanese and in particular the Aegean archipelago. Initially, though, this did not give rise to any major disputes, because the prevailing, and mutually accepted, legal opinion was that a country’s territorial waters were a zone of up to six nautical miles and Turkey did not believe that this really disadvantaged it in any way.

However, the discovery and presumption of oil and gas resources in the Aegean in the 1970s prompted Turkey to increasingly consider that it was being held back in this domain. In the intervening years, the international law of the sea has developed further in line with the interests of the great powers, who wanted to make exclusive use of ever larger expanses of sea by drawing on various technical innovations. For example, Article 3 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines a country’s territorial waters (or its “territorial sea” as the convention calls these) as a zone of up to 12 nautical miles. That convention also includes the concept of the continental shelf, which enables coastal States to declare maritime areas up to 200 nautical miles from their baseline to be their exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Against the backdrop of their disputed interests and the problems of bringing the international law of the sea into line with the Treaty of Lausanne, which incidentally was the bedrock on which the Republic of Turkey was established, Greece has so far refrained from expanding its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles in the Aegean. But Greece lays claim to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles around its islands, which it considers to be in accordance with international law.

However, to view the dispute between Turkey and Greece as just a dispute over gas falls short. Turkey has tried for a number of years, following a ‘strategic depth’ rationale, to exert direct influence on the governments and civil society of its neighbouring Arab states bordering the Mediterranean. However, the strategy of promoting political forces closely aligned with the Turkish ruling party reached its limits when they were ousted from those countries’ governments or were not even considered to be a legitimate opposition by large sections of the relevant society. As a result, Turkish foreign policy fell back on securing at least its minimum goals (i.e. preventing Kurdish autonomy), in part through direct military interventions in neighbouring countries. The military overthrow of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in summer 2013 also had an adverse impact on its diplomatic position in the Mediterranean. While Turkey has increasingly defined itself as a maritime power since the 2000s, the shift in the balance of power in Egypt has now enabled the Greek government to team up with its Cypriot, Israeli and Egyptian counterparts to pursue a concerted strategy of containing Turkey’s demands in the Mediterranean region. With the signing in Tripoli in November 2019 of an agreement on a joint Turkish-Libyan ‘sea border’ with the ‘consensus government’ dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey signalled that it did not recognise the exclusive economic zone (defined by Greece) around Megisti and has been staking its own claims there ever since. Greece responded to this by entering into a similar agreement with Egypt to cancel out the demands made by Turkey and Libya.

Legalism underpinned by military pressure

As legal justification for its political interest in expanding its territory in the Aegean, Turkey uses the ‘continental shelf’ concept from the international law of the sea. The Turks are demanding that EEZs defined on the basis of this continental shelf run halfway between the mainland of Turkey and that of Greece. It is using Articles 55 and 57 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as the grounds for doing this. On this basis, it is seeking to make claims to economically exploit large parts of the Aegean, trying to drum up support for this among its people not least with the idea of the ‘Blue Homeland’ (Mavi Vatan). Here, Turkey is taking advantage of the fact that at the time the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, the concept of the continental shelf had not yet been introduced into international law. This means that ambiguities can be found after the event in the Treaty of Lausanne. Mavi Vatan channels Turks’ claim that many of the Greek Aegean islands lie offshore of the ‘Turkish’ continental shelf and do not make up a contiguous Greek archipelago. However, the resulting view that Turkey could have economic claims reaching deep into the Greek archipelago is diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Treaty of Lausanne that played such a key role when establishing the republic. It is extremely doubtful that Turkey can disregard previously mutually agreed treaties with such a legal opinion – especially since in the Aegean there are not individual Greek islands isolated from each other off the Turkish shore, but archipelagos with hundreds of islands. A Greek blockade of the Aegean for Turkish shipping alone, entailing a unilateral expansion of Greece’s territorial waters, would hardly be compatible with the Treaty of Lausanne and the international law of the sea. Furthermore, the Turkish argument is based on a contradiction in that while Turkey is making recourse to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea here, it has not yet joined that convention itself.

In light of the fact that its international legal opinion on the Aegean is unlikely to form the basis of a negotiated settlement, Turkey is shifting the dispute to the weakest link in the Greek legal position by starting seismic explorations to the south and east of the Greek island Megisti in the summer. There, the vessel Oruç Reis is conducting explorations flanked by a small armada of Turkish warships. This is where it seems least likely that Greece can legally enforce its claim to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, given that deriving such a claim from a relatively isolated island off the Turkish coast seems scarcely compatible with the principle of proportionality. However, as mentioned above, Turkey has not joined the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, nor does it appear to be planning to take its case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Instead, it is applying increasing military pressure and is trying to force a Greek government faced with this threat into direct negotiations that would not be held on a level footing.

Carrying out seismic explorations and the huge naval presence accompanying it make the Turkish position all the more contradictory. This also shows why the Turkish government’s case regarding Megisti seems so threadbare. It seems reasonable to conclude that Megisti forms just one small part of a more comprehensive hegemonic strategy including other parts of the Mediterranean around Cyprus and the Aegean. So it is not only about gas. The controversy surrounding the exclusive economic zone around Megisti and the associated gas exploration could be settled if Turkey were to join the International Convention on the Law of the Sea and if a case were to be heard subsequently by the International Tribunal for the Sea. But would this satisfy Turkey’s wider hegemonic ambitions? A legally binding settlement of the dispute about the exclusive economic zone around Megisti, if, based on the primacy of proportionality, it favoured Turkish over Greek claims, would take the wind out of the sails of Turkey’s further hegemonic ambitions. After all, the acceptance of a legal solution for Megisti would be hard to reconcile with extra-legal pressure elsewhere in the Aegean, falling within its more far-reaching ideas, such as Mavi Vatan, which could not be implemented legally. In other words, what happens with the Megisti case will reveal whether Turkey is really only concerned with gas exploration, because exploration rights as such can be obtained through legal means. If this path is not followed, it would be legitimate to raise doubts about the legal basis of the Turkish position.

European perspectives and interests and the issue of conflict management

Taking a critical viewpoint, it is reasonable to see this conflict as primarily a political one and place it in a broader foreign-policy context. EU neutrality does nothing to counter either the special nature of Turkish foreign policy or the potential for the country to increase its power, strengthening Turkey’s resolve to continue down this path.

The question of a European perspective also plays a decisive role in any assessment of the conflict, given that the relevant players’ actions are not only driven by their interests but are based on the options they have as part of the international order. While France, partly because of its interest in the Libyan proxy war, is supporting the Greek position and even showing off its naval presence, Berlin’s foreign policy has long tried to position Germany as an ‘honest broker’ in the conflict. The truth of the matter is that Turkey is simply more of a priority than Greece for German foreign policy. Germany has nothing to gain from the EU-Turkey refugee agreement coming to an end or from inflaming the tensions between Turkey and NATO as a whole by disregarding Turkish interests. The same goes for US foreign policy. (For more information about the rival countries’ interests, see Panagiotis Sotiris.) These ambivalences were indeed what created the opportunity for Turkish aggression in the first place, as the Turks used Megisti as a testing ground for its chances of bringing about a complete overhaul of the regional order.

An emancipatory peace policy should therefore not fall into the trap of adopting a neutral position that fails to recognise the special nature of the Turkish hegemonic strategy with the military force underpinning it and encourages the two sides, despite the differences in the strength of their position, to negotiate, because the first thing that needs to be done is to firmly rebuff Turkey’s threats of war. Only in this way is there any chance that Ankara will join the International Convention on the Law of the Sea and then bring a case before the International Tribunal for the Law of Sea. As long as Turkey exerts military pressure and refuses to find a legal solution for the conflict in an effort instead to derive benefit from power imbalances in bilateral negotiations, EU Member States adopting a neutral position in the Turkish-Greek conflict is hardly likely to result in a peaceful solution. The Turkish threats of war have their own quality that goes beyond Megisti itself. This is not about adopting all of Greece’s positions but about paving the way for a legal solution by resolutely containing Turkish power politics.

In the medium term, the ongoing tensions in the Mediterranean region need to be dealt with more comprehensively. Specifically, a process of gradual and mutual disarmament should be pursued, one that would be secured through confidence-building measures and mutually regulated surveillance, for example within the framework of a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean Region.

About the author

Axel Gehring is a political scientist who lectures at the University of Marburg. His work focuses mainly on Turkey-EU relations, the political economics of European integration, hegemony and state theory, and discussions about the Turkish State.