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Expelling Libya’s ambassador is not a solution for the Eastern Mediterranean

December 9, 2019 at 3:00 pm

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) shakes hands with the chairman of Presidential Council of Libya, Fayez Al-Sarraj (L) as they pose for a photo at Dolmabahce Office in Istanbul, Turkey on 27 November 2019 [Mustafa Kamacı/Anadolu Agency]

On 27 November, Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding (MoU).

Turkey intended to exercise its rights under international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), despite the obstacles presented by the other countries in the region.

Following this bilateral agreement, the Greek government announced its expulsion of the Libyan ambassador to the country, describing the Turkey-Libyan Accord as a “blatant violation of international law.” Speaking at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) meeting, President Erdoğan slammed Greece over its expulsion of the Libyan ambassador.

In principle, it seemed unacceptable and unfortunate that the ambassador was deported over the Turkey-Libya accord. According to UNCLOS, coastal states’ continental shelves and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in a semi-enclosed sea, like the Mediterranean, are determined in Article 83 and Article 74, which are also referred to in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, in order to achieve a just solution to disputes. Therefore, to expel the ambassador under these circumstances, was set to provoke anger and undermine the region’s stability.

Why is this agreement important?

The preliminary agreement signed on 27 November, demarcates an 18.6 nautical mile (35 kilometres) line that will form the maritime boundary, separating what will be the two countries’ respective EEZs. The agreement was approved by Libya’s presidential council and Turkey’s parliament. Additionally, President Erdoğan confirmed on 7 December that Turkey’s maritime boundary delimitation agreement with Libya, was submitted to the United Nations. It is now expected to be guaranteed by the world body.

The Eastern Mediterranean is unique for its huge gas deposits. In recent years, major extractions were conducted by Greek Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. The region includes Greek Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Libya. All these states have been struggling with similar problems, such as maritime delimitation disputes and competition for the extraction of energy resources. Because of these tensions, the interference of external powers also increased, and they started to compete for influence in the region.

The division of Cyprus into two entities and Turkey’s worsening relations with Egypt after President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013, added to the region’s tensions.

READ: Turkish maritime pact with Libya goes into effect

Since 2003, Greek Cyprus and Greece have pursued a systematic policy of hostility against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Egypt and Israel also joined this duo, due to conflicting interests with Turkey. Greece recently seized Libya’s marine areas with unilateral arrangements around the Ionian Sea and Crete.

Therefore, the Libya-Turkey agreement sends a political message to Greek Cyprus, Israel and Egypt: that Turkey will not be excluded in the Eastern Mediterranean, and nothing can be really achieved in the region without Turkey’s participation. Additionally, with the help of this agreement, Turkey will reinforce its rights to control its borders in the East Mediterranean peninsula, from the beginning of the coasts of Crete.

New alliances and intensification of rivalries

In January 2019, Israel, Egypt, Greece, Greek Cyprus, Jordan, Italy and Palestine inaugurated a new forum in the region. This forum, called the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EGF), seeks to make the region a thriving energy hub. This Eastern Mediterranean pipeline was intended for the transit of resources from Israel, via Greek Cyprus and Greece to Italy. In addition, Israel, Greece and Greek Cyprus started a tripartite mechanism with US support. The agreement signed by these countries, aims to have provisions of cooperation for energy security and independence. This mechanism will enable these countries to defend themselves against external influences, such as Turkey and Russia.

READ: Greece expels Libyan ambassador over agreements with Turkey

Turkish policymakers have criticised these initiatives. Turkey argues that these countries undermined its aspirations to play the role of a conduit in the transit of resources. Turkey argues that a transit pipeline through its territory would offer the cheapest and easiest way.

On the other hand, Russia is willing to cooperate with Turkey, particularly in drilling activities. A signal of Russia’s willingness to tighten its relations with Turkey was a statement made by Russian minister of energy, Alexander Novak, on 26 July. He announced that Russia is ready to undertake joint drilling activities on the Mediterranean coast.

The situation in the Eastern Mediterranean has become a multidimensional challenge for the region’s countries, as well as for other actors such as the EU. The increasing clash in the region threatens the security of EU countries too. Therefore, as an EU member state, Greece made the wrong diplomatic act with long term consequences, by expelling Libya’s ambassador. De-escalating tensions in the region will only succeed by diplomatic agreements. With a comprehensive analysis of the drilling activities in the region, this would help to create a formula of collaboration favourable to all parties.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.