Last week's visit to Turkey by Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras certainly hit all the right positive notes. Dozens of bilateral agreements were signed by the two countries and Samaras and his Turkish counterpart both vowed to increase trade between Turkey and Greece and to work together to solve the Cyprus problem.
The two once-bickering neighbors have certainly come a long way from decades past, when a visit like Samaras's to Turkey -- now something fairly routine -- would have been hailed as a major breakthrough. That said, it appears that some trouble might be in store for Turkey-Greece relations, particularly regarding the issue of Athens' desire to lay claim to a vast amount of potentially oil- and gas-rich maritime territory in the eastern Mediterranean. From a recent Wall Street Journal report that came out only days after Samaras left Turkey:
Greece has renewed its territorial claims over a broad swath of disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean where the indebted country hopes to find vast oil and gas deposits—a plan that risks sparking a confrontation with Turkey.
Over the past several weeks, senior government officials have made a series of public statements—both at home and abroad—pointing to an almost two-decade-old international treaty granting those rights, one Greece hasn't asserted until now. Athens also has been building support in other European capitals and stepping up a diplomatic campaign at the United Nations….
….For Greece, the stakes are enormous. An estimated €100 billion ($130 billion) of undersea hydrocarbon reserves—if proven—could ease the country's crippling debt burden and make Greece a significant energy supplier for Europe, which wants to reduce its dependence on Russia. Mounting evidence of those reserves, along with recent moves by Cyprus to assert its own claims, have raised the stakes even further.
Those reserves "will mean, clearly, wealth for Greece, wealth for Europe, a significant improvement in Europe's energy security and a significant enhancement in Greece's geopolitical role," Mr. Samaras said in a recent speech to a business conference.
For now, Greece is proceeding cautiously to avoid confrontation and is using U.N. procedures to gradually build its case. Athens's end goal is clear: Greece hopes to gain international recognition for the exclusive use of a 200-nautical-mile zone around the country, basing its claims on the fact that it is a signatory to the U.N.'s Law of the Sea treaty and Turkey isn't.
The big question here is just how expansively Greece want to interpret its international right to claim its maritime territorial boundaries. According to the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Athens has signed but Ankara has not, Greece can claim territorial rights extending 12 miles from land, as well as an "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) of 200 miles. Since Greece has islands sprinkled throughout the Aegean and well into the eastern Mediterranean, the country could technically lay claim to an extremely broad area by extending its EEZ and territorial rights from the shores of these far-flung islands.
Turkey is already involved in a similar dispute with Greek Cyprus, which claims an EEZ that Ankara says infringes on its own maritime territory. That disagreement has already led to some very bellicose language from Turkish officials and, at one point, the dispatching of Turkish naval vessels to patrol a part of the Mediterranean where the Greek Cypriots were drilling for gas.
So far, the question of Greece's maritime territorial ambitions has been received by Ankara with more diplomatic language. In an interview the other day with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that despite the differences of opinion regarding Greece's territorial claims, Ankara considers the Aegean as a "sea of dialogue and friendship." As Greece ramps up in the coming months and years its effort to lay claim to wider swath of the Aegean, keeping up that dialogue and friendship will likely prove to be extremely challenging.