The Mediterranean Sea is one of the world’s most important basins. One-third of global trade goes through the area, which brings together Asia, Europe and Africa. The Mediterranean, which became more significant strategically since the Suez Canal was opened to navigation, attracts littoral states and global players thanks to its vast petroleum and natural gas reserves – which were discovered in the early 2000s.
The number of military bases in the Eastern Mediterranean alone speaks to the region’s importance. Britain has two bases in Cyprus, where the Greek Cypriot administration recently allowed France to use its airports for military purposes. Whereas the United States has a military base in Crete, Russia controls several facilities in Syria. At the same time, Moscow seeks to become more influential in the Mediterranean by playing a more prominent role in Libya. Turkey, too, has a military base in Cyprus.
The Mediterranean’s increasing attractiveness encouraged littoral states to designate their maritime jurisdictions. Almost all states hold diplomatic talks with their neighbors regarding the delimitation of their maritime jurisdictions, i.e. exclusive economic zones. Turkey’s November 2019 agreement with Libya was particularly important. At the same time, Greece and the Greek Cypriots have been concluding similar agreements with littoral states. Those treaties, however, are highly problematic and have the potential to escalate tensions in the long run.
The Greek Cypriots have signed agreements with Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. According to sources, those treaties are incompatible with international legal precedents and serve Greek Cypriot interests at the expense of the signatories. Ret. Adm. Cihat Yaycı’s book, “Turkey and the Struggle for the Eastern Mediterranean,” provides valuable insights into those agreements. This column, however, will exclusively focus on the deal between Egypt and the Greek Cypriot administration and explain how Egypt lost some of its sovereign territory in the Mediterranean as a result of the agreement.
Scholars of international maritime law explain that the delimitation of a maritime jurisdiction is subject to several criteria. Accordingly, maritime law dictates that maritime boundaries are drawn on the basis of land. Based on legal precedents, islands have very limited influence on maritime boundaries. At the same time, the delimitation of boundaries must take into account the principles of fairness and equity. A median line is drawn based on the respective coastlines of both parties. In other words, countries with longer coastlines are entitled to larger exclusive economic zones.
The Greek Cypriot administration’s coastline along the Mediterranean is 197,000 nautical miles. Egypt, in turn, controls 400,000 nautical miles of Mediterranean coasts. As such, Egypt is entitled to almost twice as much maritime jurisdiction as the Greek Cypriots under maritime law. Under their bilateral agreement, however, Egypt and the Greek Cypriot administration split the maritime jurisdiction among them as equals – meaning, in fact, it is in violation of Egyptian interests. As a matter of fact, the Greek Cypriots admitted this fact publicly. Upon concluding the treaty, the Greek Cypriot minister of industry and tourism, Nicos A. Rolandis, explained that the delimitation of maritime boundaries along the median line was a great accomplishment for them. He announced that the Greek Cypriots came into control four times to take territory that they deserved. Egypt’s losses are not limited to territory. Had Cairo concluded an agreement with Turkey, rather than the Greek Cypriots, the median line would have been located further north and Egypt would have been entitled to an additional 21,500 square kilometers (8,301 square miles) of jurisdiction.
Is there no way to reverse this agreement, which clearly violated the Egyptian people’s rights under international law? The answer is affirmative and there are legal precedents. For example, Greece and Albania signed a 2009 agreement, which the parliaments of both countries proceeded to ratify. Albania’s constitutional court, however, annulled the treaty, citing the violation of the country’s rights under maritime law – since 225 square kilometers of maritime jurisdiction was unlawfully handed over to Greece. In other words, Egypt, like other countries, can suspend its agreement with the Greek Cypriots and reclaim the maritime jurisdiction to which the Egyptian people are entitled.
One more thing: If Egypt concludes an agreement with Greece, rather than Turkey, it stands to lose an additional 15,000 square kilometers of maritime jurisdiction.