Greek-Italian maritime deal sends clear message to Turkey as Mediterranean tensions rise

Greek-Italian maritime deal sends clear message to Turkey as Mediterranean tensions rise
The Greek-Italian maritime deal comes amid a Mediterranean power struggle sparked by events in Libya's war.
6 min read
18 June, 2020
The agreement comes amid rising tensions in the Mediterranean. [Getty]

In a sudden and swift move, Greece and Italy announced that the two countries had reached an agreement on the delimitation of maritime borders in a way that would end a dispute lasting for forty years. 

This agreement, despite its importance, must be documented and ratified by the parliaments of the two countries and then officially presented to the United Nations as a bilaterally approved document, so that the international organisation can post the maps accordingly. 

While anti-Turkish media in the region were celebrating the deal, many Greek politicians and political analysts have expressed scepticism about its details. In the midst of all this, it is vital to stop for a moment and re-read the current situation in the Mediterranean to understand what is happening and what is to come.

Undoubtedly, the agreement has not been reached at this time without a reason, but rather falls within the variability that prevails in the region, which contributed to the acceleration of the announcement. 

Sources from the Greek Foreign Ministry confirm that the recent direct negotiations between Italy and Greece began just a few weeks before the announcement, which is surprising given that such agreements require long negotiations and the presence of statutory auditors who will analyse thoroughly the details of negotiations which may continue, in some cases, for years. 

It is clear that Athens has begun to view the GNA as an enemy, especially after signing a memorandum to redraw maritime borders between Turkey and Libya

One such example is the negotiations between Greece and Egypt on maritime borders between the two countries, which lasted from the beginning of 2017 to the beginning of 2018. To date, the two countries have not reached a comprehensive agreement, but only a preliminary document, nothing more. It is also certain that events in Libya have a significant impact on developments in the wider Mediterranean.

Recent developments in Libya's ground and military airspace confirm that the Ankara-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has the upper hand on the Libyan scene. The militiamen of Khalifa Haftar, who were a few miles from the heart of the capital, Tripoli, have been pushed back at least 350 kilometres. 

Read more: France and Turkey's growing rivalry in the
Middle East

This rapid change on the ground is clearly reflected in the plans and policies of many countries directly related to the events in Libya. But that was not the only change in the local scene.

News from Washington that it is preparing to send its ambassador to Tripoli is a clear and resounding message to the international community that the US considers the GNA as the legitimate government of Libya.

Between the victories of Tripoli and the vision of Washington, the Italian-Greek choice was to overcome their differences and design their maritime borders as a precautionary step. If the conflict in Libya (politically or militarily) ends with the victory of GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj and his government, it will certainly raise the stakes of his negotiations with the parties that directly or indirectly supported militias against it.

In this context, many observers have begun to inquire about the reason for this change in Athens' policy, which has always been moderate in its positions, especially regarding Libya.

It is clear that Athens has begun to view the GNA as an enemy, especially after signing a memorandum to redraw maritime borders between Turkey and Libya in a way that gives Turkey rights in disputed maritime areas. However, this memorandum has more sensitive points and a great impact on Greece's plans in the Mediterranean. 

Events in Libya have a significant impact on developments in the wider Mediterranean

In early 2019, Tel Aviv, Athens and Nicosia announced the signing of their cooperation within the project of transporting gas from Israel to southern Europe via Greece, the so-called Eastmed. This huge project will provide significant financial support to a country like Greece, which is suffering from a long-term economic crisis. While the Greeks celebrated this achievement, the Turkish-Libyan memorandum turned the dream into a nightmare.

The agreement between the GNA and Ankara actually paves the way for the construction of a submarine pipeline for Libya's gas to Turkey and supports plans to build a natural gas and oil pipeline from Libya to southern Europe in a way that makes Eastmed essentially useless, given the abundance of Russian gas in eastern and northern Europe. This may explain Greece's recent growing anger at Turkey and the reason for the Greek-Israeli rapprochement against a "common enemy".

As a result, Athens considers its national security to be threatened, mainly by Ankara. Thus, it began to fundamentally redesign its international relations, welcoming General Haftar and the president of the Libyan House of Representatives in Athens a few weeks after the Turkish-Libyan agreement. It then increased its level of cooperation with the government of Abu Dhabi and Paris (one of Haftar's most important European supporters).

In the same context, the Greek Foreign Ministry recently announced the appointment of a Greek envoy for Syria to be in contact with the Syrian regime under the pretext of humanitarian support. This change of position in Athens' politics confirms that the current conservative government has chosen to be a member of a coalition led by Abu Dhabi on the Arab side and Paris on the European side. On the other hand, the atmosphere in Ankara is more stable.

Athens considers its national security to be threatened, mainly by Ankara

Ankara today is not the same as before the failed coup attempt on 15 July, 2016. A quick reading of Turkey's role in the Syrian war reveals that it is now facing Moscow in Idlib and, with its tough diplomatic line, had an important victory in getting the green light from the US for its 'Peace Spring' operation in northeastern Syria, presenting itself as an important regional power.

In addition, with the deteriorating situation in Libya, direct Turkish intervention in support of GNA was a factor that upset the balance and gave international value to Turkey. Turkey will not be the same after its victory in Libya.

Read more: Enemy of my enemy: Turkey's rivals are
normalising Assad's regime with an eye on Ankara

What comes next?

The first visit of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after the coronavirus lockdown ended was to Tel Aviv, where an agreement on military and economic cooperation was signed with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. Greek-Israeli relations are rapidly advancing as a result of Αthens' frustration with its European partners, especially Germany, who are reluctant to support it against Ankara. 

As a result, Tel Aviv may be the right partner and ally against the "common enemy" that Ankara represents. In the same context, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias will pay another important visit to Cairo, as there are reports of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's intention to speed up the signing of a plan to delimit maritime borders between Greece and Egypt in response to Ankara's moves in the Mediterranean, and on the part of Haftar's supporters for the successive defeats of its militias in the vicinity of Tripoli.

Things for the Greek government, despite the high tones of its statements, will not get worse. NATO leaders, led by Washington, will not allow the deterioration of the atmosphere between the two neighbours, without ruling out a limited military slide.

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_