EU foreign ministers plan action on ‘astounding’ Libya-Turkey maritime deal

(Releads with outcome of EU foreign ministers' meeting, updates throughout)

European Union foreign ministers held talks on Monday to address a maritime deal between Turkey and Libya that has stoked tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where a number of countries are vying for the rights to hydrocarbon resources.

The deal was top of the agenda for Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias at Monday’s EU foreign affairs council meeting in Brussels, where he set out to gather support to oppose the Turkish move.

But the ministers said sanctions were not on the cards for Turkey during Monday’s meeting, where they instead studied the Nov. 27 memorandum of understanding that divided a chunk of the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Libya

It is “a little bit astounding how they split up the Mediterranean among themselves. We’ll have to see how we deal with it,” the Washington Post quoted Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg as saying.

Greece also gained a statement of support from Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, who said the “Netherlands is always a staunch supporter of the rule of international law, and we side with Greece.”

The EU meeting is one of a series of initiatives planned by Greece to counter the agreement, with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expected to raise concerns at an EU leaders’ summit later this week, Greek daily Kathimerini reported.

The agreement, which Turkey’s parliament ratified last week, lays out marine jurisdictions that make Turkey and Libya maritime neighbours, placing Turkey’s sea borders in areas east of the island of Crete that are claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

This deal is the first time Turkey has threatened Greece’s sovereignty in the Cretan sea, and could jeopardise a planned pipeline to deliver gas from the potentially huge reserves in the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, the Financial Times reported.

Mitsotakis told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the NATO leaders’ summit last week that the deal was a “crude violation of Greece’s rights” that neither he nor the EU would accept, Kathimerini reported.

But Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar on Sunday said the deal “rejects unilateral and illegal activities by other regional countries and international firms and aims to protect the rights of both countries in line with the international law of the sea,” Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

The pact also extends ongoing disputes over resources around the island of Cyprus further westward, since Turkish officials have vowed to begin searching for hydrocarbons in the areas it covers.

Greek officials have condemned the deal, which they say has no legal merit and is unlikely to pass Libya’s parliament due to the ongoing conflict in the country.

Nikos Kotzias, a former foreign minister of Greece, said Athens should immediately “close off its bays and adopt straight baseline delimitations to replace the natural shoreline.”

“In this way, the line upon which this delimitation is calculated is moved, as stipulated by international law,” he said in an op-ed for Kathimerini. “Greece will in other words expand its territorial sovereignty.”

Meanwhile, Aguila Saleh Issa, the leader of Libya’s parliament, is scheduled to visit Athens this week, and is expected to stress his opposition to the pact. Issa is aligned with General Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army is fighting the Turkey-backed Government of National Accord for control of the country.

That conflict has progressed as a theatre for Turkey and its rivals in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to play out their own regional power struggle.

But the situation has been further complicated this year by the arrival of Russia, whose mercenaries and equipment have given Haftar’s forces an edge that could see them capture Tripoli, Foreign Policy reported last week.

Russia and Turkey have cooperated closely in Syria, marginalising the U.S. influence on the conflict and allowing Ankara to clear border areas of the Kurdish-led groups it views as a threat while allowing the Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad to regain most of the country from rebels.

In Libya, though, Moscow’s involvement could thwart Turkey’s attempts to expand. Arab News noted that the Russian and Greek foreign ministers had underlined the importance of cooperation after meeting on Nov. 7, adding that Athens could turn to Moscow if NATO fails to back its corner in the Mediterranean.

Athens “must carry out more extensive talks with Russia and China over the stance of Turkey and underscore the latter’s behaviour in a more pressing manner inside the EU,” Kotzias said.

Talks to delimit an exclusive economic zone with Cairo should be a priority, while Athens should also push the EU to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions on Libya until it calls off the pact, he said.