For Turkey and Greece, it is time to settle the long-lasting Aegean problem between them despite the Cyrpus issue, a new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) has indicated.
“The deadlocked Cyprus problem is still a factor, but both sides have distanced themselves from the idea that its solution is a precondition for an Aegean settlement. Since Cyprus is peaceful, they should further delink it from Aegean issues, although progress in the Aegean could positively impact talks on a Cyprus settlement,” stated the ICG report “Turkey and Greece: Time to Settle the Aegean Dispute.”
The report argued that both countries would benefit from a foreign policy success, and the continuation of the problem has been an “expensive, outdated and stressful stand-off over Aegean Sea maritime zones and related issues” for both Turkey and Greece which would “capitalise on twelve years of normalization” between them.
The latest International Crisis Group policy briefing released on Monday identifies favorable circumstances for resolving the long-standing issues and talks about the fears on both sides as Ankara fears losing access to open seas and the Aegean continental shelf and Athens worries about the security of hundreds of its islands. However, it stresses that it is costly:
“Continuing deadlock is costly for both. Greece, in financial crisis, needs to reduce a disproportionate military budget. Turkey's new government, elected with a strong majority in June, needs to ensure its neighbor's stability and further assert itself as a responsible regional player.”
Didem Akyel, ICG's Turkey/Cyprus Analyst said, “A lack of political will to let go of maximalist positions and confront popular opinion with compromise has kept the negotiations in the starting blocks.”
The ICG report refers to the background of the problem stating that many of the Aegean disagreements flared up after the 1974 Athens-backed coup on Cyprus and subsequent Turkish intervention on the northern part of the island.
“Greece argued that its May 1995 ratification of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS] gave it an inalienable right to extend its territorial seas to twelve nautical miles from the present six, to which Turkey's parliament responded with a war threat that has not been revoked. An agreement on territorial seas is crucial to solve other sensitive Aegean issues, such as delineation of airspace, continental shelf, and, eventually, exclusive economic zones,” the press release on the report elaborated and further stated:
“The two countries should publicly acknowledge that each has rights and interests in their shared sea and negotiate special arrangements for the Aegean in line with UNCLOS's general principles on equity and special circumstances, including agreement on median lines where their territorial seas overlap and maintenance of high seas corridors to major Turkish ports and the Turkish straits to the Black Sea. They should also agree that the International Court of Justice [ICJ] will adjudicate any remaining disputes about where territorial sea boundaries should be drawn, and, later, about the continental shelf issue.”
“Turkey's unofficial suspension of military over-flights of inhabited Greek islands this year is a good start to building the trust needed to reach such agreements. Both countries should reduce military activity in the area. Once they reach a deal on other aspects of the dispute, Greece should meet its commitment to demilitarise Aegean islands, and Turkey should disband its Fourth Army or move it away from the coast.”
Hugh Pope, ICG's Turkey/Cyprus Project director said, “If Ankara and Athens take the final steps to settle their Aegean dispute, this would both help persuade Greek Cypriots of Turkey's goodwill and polish Turkey's EU membership negotiation credentials.”
The solution is a must as “growing Turkish-Greek interdependence makes actual conflict seem unimaginable,” according to the report which concluded that “Deep in its euro crisis, Greece needs to find ways to bring down its disproportionate military budget, and Turkey needs to do all it can to help ensure its neighbor's stability. At the same time, Greece, perhaps more than most countries, has a vital interest in making sure that Turkey does not give up on its EU membership ambition.”
The ICG indicates that an agreement on the territorial seas holds the key to building a comprehensive Aegean settlement:
“It would cause Turkey to lose any rationale for threatening war against Greece and underpin agreements on airspace, the continental shelf and, ultimately, exclusive economic zones. It would also help Turkey proceed towards its privately declared aim of joining almost every country in the world in accepting the maritime provisions of UNCLOS, as one day it must do if it is serious about joining the EU.”
However, a solution at the ICJ is also a possibility it said:
“They should first try to resolve their differences bilaterally, but if they cannot reach a comprehensive settlement, they should then do what many other countries have done that have not been able to resolve all matters affecting a shared sea, namely turn jointly to the International Court of Justice for assistance.”