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In the Eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan has a point

On Monday, Turkey and Greece announced that diplomats from both countries will meet in Istanbul this month to negotiate the maritime border between the countries. This disagreement was enough to bring the two countries close to war twice in the last century. Now, with the discovery of large gas reserves in the disputed region, it is even more consequential. The talks follow a tense five-years where both sides have refused to talk and the prospect of a war in the Mediterranean loomed large once again. Following Monday’s announcement, Erdogan urged Greece in the meantime to “refrain from actions that will escalate tensions”.

For Erdogan to lecture anyone else about escalating tensions is pretty rich. From the Atlantic to the Caucasus there are precious few tensions the Turkish President hasn’t escalated. Turkish forces are currently active in Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan. In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey maintains a substantial fleet, as well as a land force (the Fourth Army) dedicated, it seems, to war with Greece.

Turkey has used sabre-rattling rhetoric against its nominal allies as well. France and Turkey spent the second half of last year engaged in tit-for-tat shows of naval force over Erdogan’s shipment of arms to Libya. Spying an opportunity in Trump’s undiplomatic presidency of the United States, Erdogan also kicked sand in the face of its most powerful ally, occupying swathes or Kurdish Syria following the US withdrawal and purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia in contravention of NATO stipulations.

With all this, it is easy to cast Turkey as the villain in the disagreement with Greece too. In the Mediterranean, Erdogan has certainly been no shrinking violet. Turkey is insisting on extending its maritime borders to create an irredentist “blue homeland” that encompasses much former Ottoman territory, including many Greek islands, and pushes right up against the Cypriot coast. But Greece’s counterclaim, in an issue that predates Erdogan’s bellocity by some decades, is just as aggressive.

Greece bases its territorial claim on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which Turkey is not a signatory. Arguably, this puts Greece on much firmer moral ground than Turkey. But take a glance at the borders Greece has drawn up in line with the UNCLOS and you can see why Turkey isn’t happy.

The convention, Greece says, gives it the right to claim an exclusive economic zone of up to 200 nautical miles around each of its many sparsely populated Aegean islands. One of these, Kastellorizo (pop. 492), lies 78 miles from Rhodes, the nearest Greek settlement of any size, but just one mile from the Turkish coast. Under the Greek plan, Kastellorizo commands 200 nautical miles of territory to its south that would otherwise go to Turkey. By using little islands like this to work out its EEZ, Greece claims a huge chunk of the disputed sea bed and all the hydrocarbons below it.

The two sides are due to meet on the 25th January and start to hammer out a deal. They are, of course, ostensibly NATO allies, and until recently Turkey was hopeful of joining Greece as an EU member state. Erdogan’s foreign policy has eclipsed possibilities for the time being of joining the union, and has made Turkey the bête noire of the Mediterranean. But it still deserves a fair settlement.

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