The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs has published an interview that Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias had with Proto Thema.
Proto Thema: How difficult was it to reach an agreement with Italy on the delimitation of maritime zones and why did you characterise it as historic?
Dendias: It is obvious that there were difficulties because it took 43 years to reach this conclusion. Many Greek governments have attempted to do so, but eventually we reached an agreement under the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis. There was a difference in the legal approach that prevented the completion of the negotiation all these years, but I think that an exemplary agreement was finally signed, which secures the Greek interests. This is an agreement that – as I like to point out – grows Greece.
Proto Thema: What are the key provisions of the agreement? Will Greece expand its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles immediately after the ratification of the agreement by the Greek Parliament?
Dendias: This has been the case for a long time and remains a sovereign right of the country, its government and the Greek people. When we do it we will be judged by the general parameters of the exercise of our policy. But potentially, this right can be exercised at any time.
Proto Thema: Even SYRIZA described the signing of the maritime border agreement with Italy as a positive development. Should strategic diplomacy be a national case?
Dendias: Foreign policy as a whole must be a national affair. Of course, different assessments of the strategy are legitimate, and even criticism can work in a positive direction when it is well-documented and well-intentioned. As far as I am concerned, I have been careful – and I will continue to do so – to consistently inform the official opposition, as well as the opposition parties, about what is at stake each time on a major foreign policy issue. I am therefore pleased with the attitude of SYRIZA, as well as other opposition parties on this issue, although a few weeks earlier, some of them succumbed to the temptation to adopt baseless fake news about Evros.
Proto Thema: There were also voices like Nikos Kotzias accusing you of making Italy a shareholder in the Greek Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), agreeing to a reduced influence on the islands, and not amending the provisions of the 1977 agreement. Could the terms of the agreement be better for Greece?
Dendias: Everyone has the right to criticise, as long as it is not expressed in a small way and with distortion of reality. The demarcation was based on the principle of the middle line, which, if one pays attention to the map, is zigzagged and not straight, with Greece elsewhere taking on a slightly larger maritime zone and slightly less elsewhere, as is perfectly normal in such agreements. The demarcation line was adjusted accordingly, taking into account both the presence of small groups of islands on the Greek side and the existence of straight baseline lines on the Italian side. So nothing is lost, there is just a shift on both sides. The big issue is the impact of the Ionian Islands as a whole, which is completely guaranteed, in accordance with International Maritime Law and is reflected in a perfectly beneficial way for national interests in the delimitation agreement.
After all, the specific technical issue you are referring to concerns a percentage on both sides of the exchange rate of 0.0019% of the total area of the maritime zone that is delimited. Greece should not have missed a historic opportunity, as happened in the past with Libya, when the maritime zones with this country were not delimited by 3.7% of the total area. Responsibility and the tactic of “not signing anything so as not to be accused of anything” are not good advice in foreign policy.
Proto Thema: You said that the next step is the agreement on maritime zones with Egypt. Will the midline rule be followed again? Should a memorandum be signed with Cairo even without full recognition in Kastellorizo?
Dendias: Our goal is to try to sign an agreement with Egypt on the model of the one we agreed with Italy, that is, an agreement based on the UN Convention Law of the Sea. Negotiating with Egypt is not easy. Of course, it was not easy with Italy. The Greek government is pursuing active diplomacy and has positively closed an issue that should have been resolved many years ago. Our aim is to solve the outstanding issues instead of referring them to later on the calendar. Of course, it would be unfair if I did not do the right thing in the past. Each negotiation has its own peculiarities. There is mutual will, but not necessarily identical views. That is why the negotiations are being held in order for the parties to reach a common denominator, which will be deemed advantageous on both sides. In any case, the cornerstone is International Maritime Law, which guarantees the right of the islands to space in the maritime zones, but does not preclude deviations from the absolute observance of the middle line between coastal objects, if this is in the best interests of one country. I hope that during my visit to Egypt on the 18th of this month, another step will be taken towards the desired result.
Proto Thema: “We don’t want to take anything that belongs to Turkey, we would like a neighbour with whom we have a cordial relationship,” you said recently. How can we avoid the crisis when Erdogan provokes and threatens that Greece does not know who he is dealing with?
Dendias: Greece is a country that does not claim anything other than what is due to it under international law, which gives us the necessary framework to exercise our rights. We are doing this and we will continue to do so. We are not the ones claiming anything from Turkey, apart from what international law provides, of course. On the contrary, they are the ones who constantly raise arbitrary and illegal claims. Therefore, the crisis and the tension are caused by Turkey, not us. As I have said before, we are not bordering on Luxembourg. We are bordering on an often awkward neighbour, who is inspired by a revisionist logic and pursues an expansionist policy. Obviously we want to have a good relationship with Turkey, as well as with all the countries in the region. A partnership that will expand into areas such as trade, culture, exchanges and contacts between civil society, here and there. Unfortunately, Turkey currently seems to have different priorities. They threaten and blackmail to make concessions and this obviously cannot be accepted.
Proto Thema: Your statement that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is an experienced politician who will not make the mistake has made sense. Shouldn’t the Greek government have threatened to retaliate militarily in the event of a Turkish investigation into a Greek continental shelf?
Dendias: President Erdoğan has been in power for 17 years, either as Prime Minister or President, having previously served as Mayor of Constantinople. So, we are talking about a very experienced political figure who definitely has the knowledge to properly evaluate the data. And he knows very well that Greece can only react to any attempt to violate our rights. As I have stated many times in the past, Greece is a peaceful country, committed to international law and seeks cooperation with all neighbouring countries. It does not seek tension. It does not threaten or blackmail. Moreover, making Greece clear that it will defend its sovereignty and all the rights deriving from it is not a threat, it is an inalienable right of self-defence provided for in the Charter of the United Nations. In addition, it is our constitutional obligation to defend our territorial integrity, sovereignty and sovereign rights without compromise.
Proto Thema: When Ankara sends research vessels south or east of Crete will we be alone or do you expect intervention – in addition to diplomatic urgings – from the United States or France?
Dendias: If Turkey tries to violate the Greek continental shelf, it will be an obvious quality escalation, and Ankara is aware of that. Greek diplomacy has made the country’s positions and red lines clear in all directions. In the same systematic way, it has cultivated strong relations and alliances with a number of states in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. And I am able to assure you that all our interlocutors know which side is showing restraint and responsibility and which is systematically provoking, undermining stability and moving outside the framework of legitimacy. In fact, there are many countries that have made their positions public, effectively recalling Turkey in the classroom. However, we would be naive and it is dangerous for the country if we relied on the backs of third parties to defend our rights and our national sovereignty. Greece was and remains ready, if necessary, to defend even its sovereign rights on its own, as is duty. But I repeat, we will not be alone.
Proto Thema: “We can raise issues, we just don’t want to burden the climate,” you said regarding the Greek-Turkish negotiations. Do we need to reconsider our tactics to get Turkey on the path to a judicial solution?
Dendias: Open issues exist and will always exist in international relations, even between good neighbours and friends. On the other hand, it is well known that in politics and diplomacy, the right timing is the catalyst. There are indeed issues that we could raise against Turkey. These are issues which, as I have said before, arise from the Treaty of Lausanne and Ankara’s decision to build a nuclear reactor in an extremely seismogenic region. There are still issues of violations of the Montreux Treaty. Regarding the possibility of a judicial settlement that you mentioned, it is well known that a sovereign state cannot be brought before a court, it must appear there on its own free will and have agreed on the subject on which the court will be called upon to judge. An attempt has been made in the past, but Turkey has finally backed down.
Proto Thema: The principle of a “fair solution” by the United Nations Charter Law of the Sea, but also the evolution of jurisprudence, could potentially lead the International Court of Justice in The Hague to delimit a continental shelf or EEZ in the Aegean or the Eastern Mediterranean to confine Greek islands within Turkey’s continental shelf or EEZ?
Dendias: It would be utterly inappropriate to enter into matters of a judicial nature, let alone comment on a theoretical verdict. What, however, is not theoretical, but absolutely clear and guaranteed, is that the United Nations Charter Law of the Sea reflects customary law and therefore binds all states regardless of whether they have signed it or not. Certainly, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, provides that the islands have, in addition to territorial waters, a continental shelf and the right to EEZ. Turkey may believe something similar to what you are asking. Of course, it should not be forgotten that Turkey is not only not part of UNCLOS, but has not even accepted the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Proto Thema: Is it reasonable to expect that Kastellorizo, which has an area of just 9.1 square kilometres, can offer Greece a total area of 5,240 square nautical miles in sea area and submarine surface?
Dendias: Kastellorizo, as an inhabited island, has under international maritime law the right to both a continental shelf and an EEZ, regardless of its size. The fact that the island has a small area does not mean that it does not have rights. The criterion is whether an island can sustain human life and in this case, the Municipality of Megisti also includes Ro and Strongyli, islands that can be inhabited and therefore are entitled to a continental shelf and EEZ. International Maritime Law has specific rules that should be followed by everyone. Turkey’s attempt to impose its, in any case, vague and illegal view, and in fact in the provocative way it has chosen, simply exposes it internationally.
Proto Thema: Can direct threats from Erdoğan like Greece should “learn its limits and come together” could be a harbinger of a crisis that will escalate into a hot episode even in July? Are we ready to react if Ankara sends frigates and research ships to work on the Greek continental shelf?
Dendias: Unfortunately, the aggressive rhetoric of the Turkish President and other officials of the neighbouring country is not new. However, I am not the one who will comment on the verbal choices of the neighbours, nor the reasons that push them to it. In any case, Greece does know its limits, which are clearly defined by international law and constitutional requirements. I really believe that Turkey understands that it is not in its interest to have a military escalation with our country. But we must be prepared to defend our national sovereignty and our sovereign rights. I hope and work so that we do not reach this point.
Proto Thema: How likely is it to de-escalate in Libya? Will Egypt’s intervention balance Turkey’s involvement in the civil war? Will the major powers intervene or can destabilisation be caused throughout the region, as the episode with the Turkish frigates that drove away the Greek helicopter showed?
Dendias: Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world and a very important country in our region. I could not help but mention the attitude of Egypt in immigration, where it has controlled the flows without asking for compensation and without asking for a single euro. We will raise the issue of Egypt’s EU support. President El-Sisi’s peace plan, who has become an important figure in the Arab world and the Mediterranean, is a very good proposal that can be the basis for achieving a comprehensive solution primarily for the benefit of the Libyan people, as well as security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region, within the framework set by the UN and the Conclusions of the Berlin Conference.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has officially expressed the support of our country in this initiative. Greece, a directly neighbouring country, is ready to contribute by any means possible to the peaceful resolution of the crisis. Moreover, our active participation in the IRINI operation – of which we will soon take over the administration – demonstrates both our intentions and our readiness to contribute in this direction. The incident in question further highlights the importance of European intervention in the implementation of the arms embargo in Libya, in line with the UN Security Council resolutions, but also the need for the EU to support its stated positions and legality. Otherwise, there is a risk of losing its credibility, with all that entails.