The “exploratory talks” between Turkey and Greece resumed last week in Istanbul. These were initiated in 2002 and interrupted 14 years later in 2016 at the 60th round. They have now started again, with the 61st round taking place last Monday. This was a short encounter without substantive negotiation. The two sides decided to meet again in a month’s time.
No satisfactory explanation was provided for the suspension of the talks in 2016, but there is one for their resumption: After tense relations between Turkey and Greece almost throughout 2020, there is now a cooling of the heated debates.
There is a long list of problems between Turkey and Greece, which includes the continental shelf, the rights of the minority Turkish Muslim community in Greece and the Greek community in Istanbul, the demarcation of maritime jurisdiction areas, the status of some islands, geographic formations and rocks in the Aegean Sea, and a dispute over airspace. But Athens considers two issues — the breadth of territorial waters and the demilitarized status of some Greek islands — to be matters of national sovereignty and refuses to negotiate them with Turkey.
These two items have a complicated background. After the Ottoman defeat in the First Balkan war of 1912-13, the right of determining the status of the Ottoman islands in the Aegean Sea was left to the six “big powers” (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the UK, France, Italy and Russia). These countries decided to transfer to Greece the “possession” (not “ownership”) of the islands whose names were listed in the agreement. This transfer was “on condition not to use them for naval or military purposes.” In other words, these islands were given demilitarized status. On Feb. 21, 1914, Greece informed the big powers that it accepted these conditions. This transfer was later reconfirmed by an international treaty signed in Lausanne in 1923 between republican Turkey and the victorious powers of the First World War.
So Greece’s refusal to discuss this question contradicts the commitments it made when signing the Treaty of Lausanne.
Athens considers two issues to be matters of national sovereignty and refuses to negotiate them with Turkey.
Regarding the breadth of the territorial waters, Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that: “Every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles.” But this is only an upper limit and not a compulsory criterion. The geographic characteristics of the Aegean Sea require some restraint in the use of this right. There are thousands of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, some of which are hundreds of miles from mainland Greece and only a few miles from Turkey.
Greece determined the breadth of its territorial waters as being 6 nautical miles. This move transformed 40 percent of the Aegean Sea into Greece’s territorial waters. In 1995, however, the Greek parliament adopted a resolution allowing the government to extend, at a time that it deems appropriate, the breadth of its territorial water to 12 miles. The Turkish parliament immediately reacted to this move and unanimously adopted a decision that allows the government to consider such a move by the Greek government as casus belli (justification for a declaration of war). If the breadth of the territorial waters of all Greek islands was extended to the maximum limit of 12 miles, more than 70 percent of the Aegean Sea would be controlled by Greece.
Ankara strongly opposes such a move because this amounts to a strangulation of Turkey. Most of the Greek islands off Turkey’s coast are closer to each other than 24 nautical miles. Therefore, 12-mile territorial waters would become contiguous and create a barrier for any Turkish vessels that wanted to sail to the high seas. They would then only be able to reach the high seas by using their right of “innocent passage.” According to international law, innocent passage allows a coastal state to stop and search the vessels of other countries that cross its territorial waters. This could lead to lots of abuses and Turkey would probably resist such a restriction at all costs.
In this dispute, Greece considers these two issues to be matters of national sovereignty and refuses to negotiate them with Turkey. Ankara, on the other hand, insists that these problems have to be included in the talks.
When one of the parties insists that there is a major problem to sort out and the other refuses to even admit the existence of such a problem, we are faced with an interesting philosophical question: Is there a problem to be negotiated between these two countries or not?
- Yasar Yakis