Part I: Some Observations on the Agreement between Greece and Egypt on the Delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone

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Greece and Egypt signed an agreement for the delimitation of the two countries’ maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on 7 August 2020. The Greek Foreign Minister said that this was a ‘historic day’: the two states had reached an ‘exemplary agreement’ that ‘reconfirms and enshrines the effect and the right of islands to a continental shelf and EEZ’ in conformity with international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Egyptian Foreign Minister stated: ‘This agreement allows both countries to move forward in maximizing the utilization of the resources available in the exclusive economic zone, especially promising oil and gas reserves’.

The Greece-Egypt maritime delimitation agreement is available here (in Greek). This post provides some background context, observations on the text of the agreement, and implications of the agreement for the Greece-Turkey maritime boundary dispute.

Figure 1: Greece-Egypt EEZ Partial Delimitation

Background to the agreement

The origins of the Greece-Egypt delimitation agreement date back to the start of the search for energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in the early 2000s. Proceeding in the exploration and eventually the exploitation of offshore energy resource potentials required determining the maritime boundaries of coastline States: Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Turkey.

Cyprus and Egypt were the first to reach a delimitation agreement on the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2003 (here). The agreement is based on ‘a median line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest point on the baseline of the two Parties’ (Art.1). Cyprus then concluded two additional agreements based on median/equidistant lines: with Lebanon in 2007 (not yet in force, here) and with Israel in 2010 (here). These three agreements are concise and comprise five articles each: Art.1 stipulates the exact location of the median line boundary; Art.2 deals with transboundary seabed resources; Art.3 regulates the process of future delimitation with third States; Art.4 relates to the settlement of disputes; and Art.5 discusses the agreement’s ratification and entry into force.

Greece and Egypt began negotiating their boundary delimitation in 2005. There were two options for delimitation: a negotiated and amicably-agreed on boundary and, if negotiations failed, recourse to third-party adjudication or arbitration. Negotiations were protracted and conducted in good faith, but Greece’s geographical features and the presence of third States, such as Turkey, in the delimitation area presented legal and political difficulties. Egypt sought not to interfere in the Greek-Turkish conflict. According to Greek expert, Syrigos, ‘Egypt’s position was simple: agree on a boundary with Turkey first and then tell us which of the two we will sign with’. Turkey proposed a maritime delimitation to Egypt in 2013. Syrigos argues the best solution would have been to submit the matter to the ICJ. However, Greece and Egypt both made declarations, respectively on 16 January 2015 and 16 February 2017, under Article 298 of UNCLOS, that they did not accept the procedures in Part XV, Section 2 (compulsory procedures entailing binding decisions) with respect to maritime boundary disputes. A joint submission to the ICJ had to be agreed upon. On any account, judicial proceedings take a minimum of 4 to 5 years. In 2019, Turkey and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the delimitation of the EEZ and the continental shelf between the two countries (here).

Figure 2: Areas covered under the Turkish-Libyan MoU (based on Annex1 of the MoU)

Libya claimed, in a letter to the UN Security Council dated 13 May 2020, that its MoU with Turkey ‘in no way affects the rights of any third party’. However, the map annexed to the MoU clearly showed that the presence of Greek islands, such as Crete, Rhodes and Kastellorizo, and related maritime zones had been ignored. Further, Turkey and Libya announced energy exploration plans in the areas indicated in the MoU. The MoU pushed Greece to finalise quickly an agreement with Egypt. 

Content of the agreement

The Preamble to the Greece-Egypt agreement recognises the relevance and applicability of the UN Charter and UNCLOS. It specifically refers to the principles of good neighbourliness, cooperation, and good faith. The Preamble emphasises that each party must exercise its sovereign rights and jurisdiction in accordance with UNCLOS to which both Greece and Egypt are party. UNCLOS provides that an agreement on the basis of international law between the States concerned is the primary method for the delimitation of marine boundaries, including the EEZ and the continental shelf (Article 74(1) and Article 83(1)). UNCLOS does not specify a method for determining the boundary, only that the delimitation arrive at an ‘equitable solution’. A consent-based freely negotiated and adopted delimitation treaty, by definition, complies with international law, per Articles 74(1) and 83(1) UNCLOS.

The Greece-Egypt agreement closely mirrors previous delimitation agreements in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea (such as those between Cyprus and Egypt, Lebanon or Israel). Per its title, it is an agreement on the ‘delimitation of the exclusive economic zone’. The agreement does not refer to the continental shelf regime. The is probably because the parties understood the EEZ to encompass sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the continental shelf. Albeit they remain two distinct zones, the EEZ and the continental shelf within 200 nautical miles have similar limits and substantive rights. Thus, international jurisprudence and State practice indicate a tendency towards a single line of delimitation for both the EEZ and the continental shelf within 200 nm.

The agreed boundary

The agreed boundary represents a reasonably straightforward delimitation of opposite EEZs based on the median line. The layout is simplified to only 5 points between the 26th and 28th meridian.

The boundary, first, clarifies the maritime areas appertaining to Greece’s and Egypt’s maritime jurisdiction and the applicable delimitation principles consistent with UNCLOS and customary international law.

Second, it clarifies the exact limits of overlapping maritime claims with other States in the areas. ‘There is now an international dispute which – theoretically – limits the ability of Turkey to act’, Syrigos comments. The Greek-Turkish maritime boundary dispute had arguably crystallised long before the Turkey-Libya MoU and the Greece-Egypt agreement. The nature, underlying principles, and exact geographical extent of those overlapping claims are, however, now much clearer. This is important to define the geographical scope of application of the UNCLOS obligation ‘not to jeopardise or hamper the reaching of the final agreement’ and related obligations of restraint under customary international law (see Barrett, Burke and others in BIICL’s 2016 report on the obligations of States in respect of undelimited maritime areas).

Figure 3: Overlapping Maritime Claims Credit: BBC News

Role and effect of islands

Shortly after the conclusion of the Greece-Egypt agreement, the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the agreement, in fact, ‘support[ed] the Turkish thesis that the islands do not have a continental shelf’. This view is hardly convincing to anyone even vaguely familiar with Article 121 UNCLOS, which has the status of customary law (Nicaragua v Colombia 2012, para 139), and with Turkey’s delimitation practice. Turkey cannot, and indeed does not, deny that islands generate the full suite of maritime zones. The “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” and Turkey (the only country that recognises it) have entered into a ‘continental shelf delimitation agreement’ in 2011 (see Ioannides’s analysis). 

The text and accompanying map in the Greece-Egypt agreement indicate that the Greek islands have been considered in the maritime boundary delimitation. The boundary on the Greek side has been based exclusively on islands’ coasts. This is shown by the points from which the limit was drawn along Crete and partly from Rhodes.According to Greece’s longstanding position: because islands generate maritime zones of their own, because they are closely-knit and form groups that represent a geographical unity, it follows that islands can be taken as base points for the maritime boundary, this being a median line between the Greek islands and the opposite mainland coasts. Greece only posits that some low-tide elevations and other uninhabitable insular features may be ignored in the delimitation process. However, in the Greece-Egypt agreement, the boundary is not a strict median line, which is the basic position of Greece, but an adjusted median. The resulting maritime area allocated to each state is at a ratio of about 9:11 favouring Egypt.

A partial agreement and third States

Importantly, the Greece-Egypt agreement is geographically limited. It only addresses part of the full length of the potential maritime boundary between Greece and Egypt. The island of Kastellorizo (officially known as Meyisti, or Meis in Turkish) and a small part east of the coast of Rhodes have not been included, probably to avoid a confrontation with Turkey. This does not prejudice future delimitation to the east of the specified boundary. Article 1(e) of the agreement provides that any subsequent delimitation beyond the stipulated boundary in the agreement (east of the 28th meridian or southwest of Crete) will be completed ‘in consultation with the neighbouring States concerned’. Thus, the two pockets left out of the agreement relate to future arrangements by the two sides with third countries (Libya, Cyprus and Turkey). This does not prejudice Greece’s position on the role and effect of islands in the delimitation process or, indeed, the interests of third States.

This approach conforms with international case law. The tribunal in the Eritrea/Yemen Arbitration considered, in light of the presence of third States in the relevant area, including Saudi Arabia and Djibouti, that:

It will, therefore, be necessary to terminate either end of the boundary line in such a way as to avoid trespassing upon an area where other claims might fall to be considered. It is, however, clearly necessary to consider the choices of the base points controlling the median line first, and then to look at the cautionary termination matter when the line to be thus terminated at its northern and southern ends has been produced (para 136)

The partial character of the Greece-Egypt agreement is consistent with regional State practice in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea (see Zu’s analysis). The Cyprus-Egypt, Cyprus-Lebanon, and Cyprus-Israel EEZ delimitation agreements all provide that the terminal points of the established boundaries could be reviewed and/or extended to potential equidistant tripoints from the coasts of respective States ‘in the light of future delimitation with other neighbouring States and in accordance with an agreement to be reached in this matter by the neighbouring States concerned’.

Editors Note: Part II, addressing ‘Where to from here? The Greece-Turkey maritime boundary dispute’ follows later today.

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Michael G. Karnavas says

August 25, 2020

Insightful, measured, and persuasive. A case for the possible however pesky the challenges may be when diplomacy is based on good will, flexibility, and ingenuity. Looking forward to Part II.

Alexandros Karagiannopoulos says

August 27, 2020

Thank you for the read.