Greece and Italy, two states sharing sea borders in the Ionian Sea, signed an agreement for the delimitation of their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) on 9 June in an important development for stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt signed an EEZ agreement with Cyprus back in 2003. The time has now come for a similar Greece-Egypt Exclusive Economic Zone agreement that will greatly enhance the vital interests of both countries.
The Greek-Italian EEZ agreement of 2020, an extension of the 1977 bilateral agreement on the continental shelf, was the result of laborious diplomatic efforts and contacts between the political and technical personnel of both countries. Initial Italian reservations concerning the potential restriction of fishing rights in the Ionian Sea were overcome with relevant provisions. The Defence and National Security Committee of the Libyan parliament also announced its support for the maritime delimitation agreement signed between Italy and Greece and requested that this should function as a potential model and a fair framework for maritime delimitation among the countries of the Mediterranean. Attention has now turned towards Egypt and a possible Greek-Egyptian agreement.
Egypt has raised partial concerns that are primarily focused on the repercussions of the effects of an EEZ agreement on the island of Kastellorizo. Kastellorizo, a strategic Greek island, is a linking part in the EEZ agreement between Greece and Cyprus. According to Article 121 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), “the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this convention applicable to other land territory.” This in effect means that the island of Kastellorizo, like all other Greek islands and all other land territory of the Greek state, possesses a full economic zone.
It should be remembered that Turkey is one of the few states that have not signed the UNCLOS. Kastellorizo is fundamental for Greek and Cypriot security vis-à-vis the Turkish rejection of international law, and Greece cannot be seen to abdicate from the Kastellorizo region, which has become the primary focus of Turkish interest in relation to EEZ agreements, as such a move would only encourage further Turkish aggression.
Egypt, along with Greece, Cyprus, France and other countries, rejected the signing in November 2019 of two Memoranda of Understanding between Turkey and the Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Accord Fayez Al-Sarraj. The Memorandum of Understanding for the delimitation of maritime zones between Turkey and the Tripoli government, an illegal action from the point of view of international law, was rightly rejected by Egypt. It is in this context that Egypt can now complete its commitment to international law and its vital national interests by signing an EEZ agreement with Greece.
A compromise between Egypt and Greece on this matter would ensure the vital strategic interests of both countries. With the possible extension of an Egyptian EEZ agreement to the north with Greece, Egypt would unify its energy reserves in the Zohr natural gas field and obtain a recognised economic and strategic presence in the central part of the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt’s growing energy needs and overall interests have reoriented it towards the Mediterranean Sea and the Zohr Field. Cooperation with Greece is essential in this regard. Agreeing terms with another member state of the European Union, after the successful 2003 Egyptian-Cypriot EEZ agreement, would enhance Egypt’s vital interests and ties with the European Union as a whole.
It is in the interests of Egypt to share sea borders with two member states of the European Union rather than with an unstable and revisionist Turkey. Greece and Cyprus are not antagonistic towards Egypt in any field, and they are Egypt’s best diplomatic allies in the framework of the European Union. On the other hand, Turkey is a major opponent of Egypt in its interference in the affairs of other states and support for Islamist militias, as well as in the spheres of regional interests and power projection in the greater Middle East. Greece does not interfere in Egyptian zones of interest, unlike Turkey, which has grown to be a major opponent of Egyptian interests in both internal and foreign affairs.
Concerning issues of national security, Egypt faces two issues on its land borders, one external and one internal. The external threat is connected to events in Libya, where the Turkish intervention in support of the Al-Sarraj government in Tripoli has altered the balance of power. Libya represents strategic depth to Egypt, and the establishment of a Turkish-supported and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated power structure in Libya is clearly against Egyptian interests.
The internal threat is represented by the Islamist militias active in the Sinai Peninsula, against which the Egyptian authorities have achieved considerable success, thereby ensuring internal peace and stability for the Egyptian people. A possible third zone of tension with a revisionist Turkey in the Mediterranean would undermine Egypt’s strategic interests and produce an unnecessary field of confrontation. Egypt can avoid this through an EEZ agreement with Greece.
The Eastern Mediterranean has become a focus of instability due to the revisionism and expansionist policies of Turkey. Turkish interference in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt in the past, Cyprus and in the Aegean Sea creates zones of instability that pose a collective security threat. If Egypt and Greece move forward with the signing of an EEZ agreement, this would constitute a major turning point for the geopolitical equilibrium of the region.
Greece and Egypt, along with Cyprus, could thus create a new axis linking the Eastern Mediterranean and isolating the connection between Turkey and the Tripoli government. An EEZ agreement between Egypt and Greece is thus a matter not only of economic interest, but also of strategic interest as well. A Greek-Egyptian EEZ agreement would safeguard Egyptian geopolitical interests in the case of Libya, as it would combat Turkish interference and undermine the Memorandum between the Tripoli government and the Turkish regime concerning EEZs.
We should also remember that Iran has obtained a sea façade on the Mediterranean through Syria and Lebanon, and Egypt cannot remain inactive for long on the EEZ issue.
After a Greek-Egyptian EEZ agreement and the stabilisation and legal recognition of the exact sea borders of each country, Greece and Egypt with the possible cooperation of France could move forward to form a real military alliance focused on the seas. This Eastern Mediterranean Naval Alliance could extend to joint military exercises and joint patrols of the border regions of the national EEZs in the sea.
Sea power is the main field of power projection for both countries concerning their fundamental strategic interests. Greek strategic interests include its connection to the Cyprus Republic and are mainly historical. Egyptian strategic interests are primarily economic and strategic. Both countries would benefit greatly from an EEZ agreement. The time has come for a leap forward as part of a pro-active strategic mentality.
The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly