ATHENS - Greece’s government has presented a bill to parliament that doubles the country’s territorial waters along its western frontiers, allowing it to exploit untapped energy reserves that can boost its ailing economy. Greece wants to also expand its frontiers along its eastern borders, in the Aegean but its neighbor, Turkey, rejects the move, saying it would spell war. Still, the two NATO allies, that have seen relations plummet dangerously in the last year over energy rights, are gearing for a fresh effort at exploratory talks to sort out their differences.
In presenting the bill for ratification by parliament, Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said it marked a historic moment for the country, part of a bigger attempt to shield its sovereign interests as Greece and Turkey remain locked in a dangerous standoff over energy and maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
The bill is the result of years of negotiations between Greece and Italy, redefining their maritime boundaries and establishing an exclusive economic zone that allows Athens to now survey the Ionian waterway and seabed that divides Greece and Italy for up to 19 kilometers from Greece’s western coast.
That’s twice as much as before.
A similar agreement is also being sought out with Albania which recently agreed to take the maritime case to arbitration at the international court at The Hague – something which Greece has also been trying to convince Turkey to do to sort out long-standing differences involving the Aegean Sea, an oil-and minerals-rich waterway that divides the two NATO allies.
Bent on exploring untapped gas and oil reserves in the seabed that surrounds Greece, Athens has long been keen to extend its borders along its eastern frontiers – a move that Turkey has been strongly resisting, saying that any such designs would choke off its access to the Aegean, turning the waterway into somewhat of a Greek lake.
Ankara has warned that any decision by Athens to extend territorial rights in the Aegean would spark war – a threat Greece is reluctant to ignore, especially after the two NATO allies came to the brink of an all-out conflict in that exact waterway just 20 years ago.
Relations between the two age-old foes have seesawed for years since then. But in the past year, they escalated dangerously because of oil and gas drilling projects underway in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean.
And while Turkey has snubbed repeated attempts by the European Union to mediate exploratory talks with Greece, it now appears to be returning to the negotiating table.
In recent days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held crucial talks with key EU officials.
More are expected to follow as Ankara, according to analysts, appears to be trying to rekindle its ties with the West after U.S. sanctions were imposed on the country’s defense industry for purchasing a Russian anti-ballistic system in breach of its NATO alliance commitment. The EU is also warning of sanctions it too may impose in March.
Dimitris Keridies, a Greek lawmaker and professor of international relations, explains.
In this sense, he said, Erdogan is almost predictable in how he is behaving. He’s clearly under pressure and he wants to restore relations with European states, Israel, Arab states and the U.S., especially with the new president coming in, to show a different face to all, mainly the Europeans, ahead of a March summit that will decide on the fate of those sanctions.
Greece has long welcomed any Turkish return to exploratory talks; but it wants them to take place under an agreed agenda of topics, says Tassos Hadjivassiliou, a leading lawmaker.
If they want to return to the negotiating table, Hadjivassiliou said, then they have to agree to the agenda of the talks. And that, he explains, can include nothing more than issues surrounding exploitation in the Aegean Sea. Any other issues are just unacceptable claims.
It remains unclear what the finalized agenda will feature. But government officials in Athens tell VOA the exploratory talks may begin within weeks.