Nikoaos Garilidis is the new ambassador of Greece to Egypt, the country where he was born in July 1958 and where he lived until the early 1970s when he went back to Athens to study law and join the Greek diplomatic service.
This is his first year in Cairo as ambassador, and during it he is hopeful that he will see the completion of a long-negotiated deal on the demarcation of maritime borders between Egypt and Greece.
“We are close, very close,” to a deal, Garilidis said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly at his office in Cairo earlier this week.
The process of negotiating exclusive economic zones (EEC) between Egypt and Greece was launched over three years ago during a visit of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Athens, where he and then Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras agreed that to help each country benefit from the possible resources of its national waters an agreement needed to be signed.
A proper negotiation process on the demarcation of maritime borders between Cairo and Athens had never been seriously initiated before, as Cairo had wished to accommodate Ankara whose dispute with Athens and Nicosia over Cyprus had prohibited a maritime demarcation between Turkey and both Athens and Cyprus.
Given the 2016 decision by Cairo to bypass this matter, political directives were issued for the negotiating teams to start the process.
According to Garilidis, during the past three plus years 13 rounds of negotiations have been held between Cairo and Athens. “The last round of talks ended in Athens on Tuesday,” he added.
Garilidis said that there might be another round or two of talks between technical delegations, but that at the end of the day “both sides will have to depend on the wisdom of the respective political leaderships to get the deal done.”
Last month, Nikos Dendias, the Greek foreign minister, was in Cairo for talks on the matter and on the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean.
President Al-Sisi met with Dendias, who also met with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri. Shoukri and Dendias attended the 12th round of talks on the EEC agreement.
Dendias’ visit to Cairo came a little over a week after Greece and Italy signed an agreement on maritime boundaries on 9 June, establishing an EEC between the two countries and resolving long-standing issues over fishing rights in the Ionian Sea.
Such agreements will pave the way for the Mediterranean countries to embark on the full use of their EECs, including for gas drilling and fishing. Egypt has already signed an EEC agreement with Cyprus, but it has no agreement with Turkey.
In the assessment of the Greek ambassador to Egypt, the EEC is a matter that “should be done this summer.” He said there could be electronic signing, or the empowerment by the countries’ respective leaders for their ambassadors or foreign ministers to sign.
Once the text is agreed, the detailed protocols will be decided, he said.
The signing of an EEC agreement between Greece and Egypt will not be to the liking of Turkey, which has for months been sending messages to Egypt indicating its wish to sign an agreement on the demarcation of maritime borders, especially after last year’s signing of an agreement between Ankara and the Islamist-dominated Government of National Unity (GNA) in Libya.
Greece has criticised the agreement signed in November 2019 and said it grants Turkey more than its legitimate rights. The position of Turkey on this deal, Garilidis argued, was part and parcel of a bigger question on the role of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Garilidis previously headed the Turkey desk at the Foreign Ministry in Greece for three years before arriving in Cairo to replace Michael-Christos Diamessis, who is now representing his country in Ankara.
Diamessis was recently summoned by the Turkish Foreign Ministry in protest against alleged Greek violations of Turkish national waters.
According to Garilidis, an agreement between Cairo and Athens will help manage unresolved EEC issues in the Eastern Mediterranean.
He spoke before Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu suggested in press statements that there were behind-the-scenes talks between Turkey and Egypt over the issue of maritime borders after the agreement that Ankara and the GNA signed between Turkey and Libya, Egypt’s western neighbour, over a year ago.
Garilidis said that no country in the Mediterranean wanted to pick a fight with Turkey. Greece, he added, had been on-and-off pursuing an agreement on maritime borders with Turkey.
He said it was up to Turkey to pursue good relations with its neighbours. The underlying problem between Turkey and many of its neighbours, he said, was that the current political regime in Ankara perceived the vast majority of these as “former Ottoman wilayats” (provinces).
“It is better for all of us to cooperate — Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, the Palestinians, Syrians and everyone else,” Garilidis said. “But this cannot happen if somebody wants to control us. This would not be good because it would turn everybody [else] against them,” he added.
If Turkey were to abandon its “Ottoman ideas”, Garilidis said, Greece would help Ankara find a way forward on further economic cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean, including on natural gas projects.
Turkey is not a member of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which brings together the other Eastern Mediterranean countries, including Israel and the Palestinians. The latter still have a long way to go on the demarcation of their maritime borders and those between them and their Mediterranean neighbours.
Garilidis added that what Turkey “is doing in Libya, for example,” is not just about its wish to pursue natural-resource cooperation with Libya, but more about its wish to establish itself as a top player in the region.
This would not be accepted by most countries in the Mediterranean, he said.
“For example, Egypt has legitimately said that it cannot let Libya be a toy for the militias brought into Libya [by Turkey] and that is fully understood,” Garilidis said. “Clearly, this is an issue that influences security not just for Egypt, but for all of the countries of North Africa and all the countries around the Mediterranean.”
What Turkey needed to do was to pursue agreements with its neighbours according to international law, Garilidis said.
On Monday, the European Union criticised Turkey’s drilling for natural gas and oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. The warning came after Ankara announced that the drilling would start soon.
On 9 July, Karalambos Petrides, the Cypriot minister of defence, discussed the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Cyprus EEC during meetings with the ambassadors of Greece, France, and Italy.
Garilidis said that his mandate as Greek ambassador in Egypt would be based on enhancing all forms of cooperation on as many fronts as possible and not just the natural resources that the two countries are committed to through their membership of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and possibly the Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline.
Garilidis is particularly keen on boosting cultural cooperation, and he is considering options to enhance cooperation in archaeology, among other joint projects.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly