ATHENS - The Greek government is hailing a deal reached with Egypt on Thursday establishing an exclusive economic zone for oil and gas rights as a major success, claiming it counters growing Turkish influence in the region as Ankara prepares to issue new oil exploration licenses that have been sharply criticized by Greece, the European Union and Washington.
In a surprise move, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias secretly jetted off to Egypt to seal the deal, finalizing a strategic alliance with Cairo, which diplomats in Athens said required 13 rounds of negotiations and 15 years to ultimately conclude.
With the European Union and Washington increasingly concerned about Turkey’s growing influence in the eastern Mediterranean, Greek and Egyptian negotiators now moved fast.
The agreement effectively expands and consolidates both countries’ rights to drill and explore untapped reserves in the hundreds of miles of sea that divides them.
More important, Greece said the deal trumps a contentious maritime deal that Turkey recently signed with the Libyan government in Tripoli, allowing Turkey to drill for gas and oil in the same region, including within Greek waters, off the coast of Greek islands such as Crete.
This deal, he said, is the exact opposite of what he calls the invalid and illegal understanding between Ankara and Tripoli. It confirms and safeguards the rights of Greece's islands, Dendias said, and it attests to the decisiveness of both Greek and Egypt to block Turkey’s influence in the region.
With this agreement, Dendias said, Turkey’s deal with Tripoli goes in the trash, where he said it should.
While both NATO allies, Greece and Turkey have been at odds for years over sea, air and land rights. Tensions have flared in recent months, with Greece warning it would wage war if Turkey moved to act on its energy designs, drilling or even exploring in waters in Greece claims.
Turkey insists it is well within its rights to explore untapped energy fields in the eastern Mediterranean and it has submitted its maritime deal with Libya to the United Nations for ratification.
With tensions running high between the two nations, EU member states and the U.S. State Department have urged Turkey to back off from its ambitious energy designs, at least for now. They are also pushing Greece and Turkey to return to the negotiating table in hope of trying to sort out age-old differences. It has been four years since the two countries have held regular diplomatic meetings.
Constantinos Filis, director of the Athens-based Institute of International Relations, said Greece would have little chance of major success at those talks without the agreement it now has with Egypt.
Without this agreement, Filis said, Greece would have been at a serious disadvantage. Now, it can come to the negotiating table and claim a legal difference, pushing Turkey to seek recourse with the International Court at The Hague to resolve these matters — delineation of the continental shelf and who has rights over what area.
Whether Greece will do so remains unclear. And even if it does, there is no guarantee it will win.
Turkey argues that Greek islands should not be included in calculating maritime zones of economic interest. It says it is well within its rights to explore reserves, even off the coast of certain Greek islands.
No exact date for the so-called exploratory talks has been set, but officials in Athens told VOA they expected that the sessions would begin in coming weeks, well before EU leaders meet again in September to review their collective stance on Turkey, including potential sanctions.