IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2023


Panorama: The Mediterranean Year

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Geographical Overview

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Maps, Charts, Chronologies and other Data

Mediterranean Electoral Observatory

Migrations in the Mediterranean

Commercial Relations of the Mediterranean Countries

Signature of Multilateral Treaties and Conventions


Opportunities and Challenges for Conflict Resolution and Border Delimitation in the Eastern Mediterranean post Israel-Lebanon Agreement

Dr. Harry Tzimitras

Peace Research Institute Oslo-PRIO Cyprus Centre
Senior Fellow
Global Energy Centre, Atlantic Council, Washington D.C.

Eastern Mediterranean Dynamics and Prospects

The discovery of hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean 15 years ago attracted much international interest with respect to the possibility for energy to have transformative potential for the region. At the same time, hopes were entertained for the region itself to become an important global energy player. The discoveries served to boost the self-confidence and ambitions of regional states, given the interest of bigger political and energy powers. That was a time of intense discussion regarding Europe’s energy security and the diversification of energy sources, and the eastern Mediterranean was perceived as having an important capacity to make a contribution. Energy findings highlighted bilateral and multilateral relations between and among the East Med littoral states. Importantly, natural resources enabled collaboration between states and led to a number of bilateral agreements, including maritime delimitation agreements and multilateral alignments, such as the establishment of broader bodies, like the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF). At the same time, the findings and future prospects also fuelled rivalries and active or underlying disputes that resulted in heightened tensions.

Energy resources were viewed by most regional states through the sovereignty lens, thus triggering reflexes of competition, rather than cooperation

Indeed, energy resources were viewed by most regional states through the sovereignty lens, thus triggering reflexes of competition, rather than cooperation, consequently aggravating pre-existing conflicts, or even sparking new ones. For instance, this was the case with hydrocarbon exploration activities undertaken by the Republic of Cyprus, or even the establishment of the EMGF: all were perceived by Turkey as exclusive arrangements, detrimental to its interests and security, leading the country to object and react, at times forcefully. To take another example, the fact that hydrocarbons were seen in Cyprus from the viewpoint of the existing political problem, did not allow energy to become a platform for cooperation and reconciliation, potentially leading to further collaboration in other areas. Rather, energy was allowed to become yet another chapter in the conflict or another link in the chain of the Cyprus issue. At the same time, as indicated, some positive developments did indeed take place, facilitated by the discovery of energy resources, such as some bilateral agreements for EEZ delimitation, or the establishment of trilateral alignments between e.g. Cyprus, Egypt, Greece and Israel. Notwithstanding the fact that their evolution into something more robust and meaningful remains an ambition, their importance should not be underestimated.

Indeed, in the broader regional picture, similar to the Israel-Lebanon case, it was energy prospects that arguably played the key role in the Turkish-Israeli and Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement. Furthermore, it is again energy that could make a major contribution to an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. In the case of Cyprus, the two communities could find in energy the best platform for cooperation and mutual gains in a win-win deal. This could pave the way towards synergies in other fields as well, greatly facilitating an eventual solution to the Cyprus problem. Unfortunately, the inability or unwillingness, thus far, to consider energy within the framework of the reunification negotiations has meant losing a lot of crucial time. It could also serve as a basis for wider regional common efforts, with Cyprus as the catalyst. The serious challenges the region is currently facing, as well as the potential opportunities that may be emerging, point to the absolute necessity for cooperation; and energy could be the ideal enabler. At the same time, if the regional states adopt short-sighted, self-interested policies, which are insensitive to regional realities, there is a clear danger that energy could become a trigger for further conflict, instead of an agent for partnership.

Findings in the region, then, hold great promise both for the eastern Mediterranean states and the region as a whole. However, this potential can only be unpacked through realism, swift action, concerted efforts, determination and political will. Despite considerable pressing realities and challenges, internationally and regionally, there can conceivably still be a future for East Med gas. Similarly, its realization demands pragmatism, out-of-the-box thinking and the development of fully inclusive cooperative arrangements. Possibly, the only way forward would be through integrated programmes and synergies that allow for grounded planning that makes business sense. This would require regional states to undertake truly meaningful collaborations, beyond past and present entanglements, since the best, if not the only, future for East Med gas is be a local one.

The Uses and Misuses of International Law

Public international law requires states to resolve disputes peacefully – indeed there can be no alternative, given the outlawing of violence in the UN Charter. The means and forums available have multiplied and developed. More than 20 ways are indicatively described in the Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) alone. In most cases, a combination of methods works best. But international law is what states make of it. It is there to assist states and prescribe means and processes. Mankind did not receive it on plaques; it is what people have agreed to be bound by, through a political process. There is very little public international law can do if there is no will on behalf of parties, and little in the way of formal, institutionalized means for the international community to exert pressure. Conversely, international law, with its richness of provisions and tools, can be both a great facilitative mechanism, as well as a legitimizing agent, offering states a choice of processes and equipment, when the will to cooperate exists. Three observations could be made in this regard. 

First, where there’s a will, there’s a way. For instance, Israel and the Republic of Cyprus signed a bilateral maritime delimitation agreement (2010, entering into force in 2011) on the basis of LOSC provisions, despite the fact that Israel was not a signatory of the Convention, because this was not and still is not a prerequisite. In a similar fashion, arguments sometimes put forward regarding the non-participation of Turkey in the Convention, as an accusation or an explanatory excuse for not discussing cooperative schemes, would find no foundation or support in law. The same holds true for two other important cases in the area of delimitation agreements, those between Russia and Norway (2010) and Israel and Lebanon (2022). The latter is even more important for two additional reasons: the two countries do not recognize each other; indeed, they are in a state of war. Irrespective of the final fate of the agreement’s implementation, the very fact that two countries with such limitations and heavy predicaments as a matter of principle came together to negotiate and even sign an agreement is proof that positive outcomes can result when realism, political will and constructive facilitation are combined.

The very fact that two countries with such limitations and heavy predicaments as a matter of principle came together to negotiate and even sign an agreement is proof that positive outcomes can result when realism, political will and constructive facilitation are combined

This example would make it exceedingly difficult for others, say, the two sides in Cyprus, to put forward a credible, convincing argument regarding their reluctance or refusal to even discuss energy, let alone negotiate. One of the arguments most frequently put forward regards the lack of recognition. However, the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey have been parties to cases before the European Court of Human Rights, despite the absence of recognition. Or, to take another example, Greece and Kosovo have maintained relations for years, despite non-recognition. Finally, the negotiations leading up to the adoption of the Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia, ending a decades-old dispute, highlight the benefits of the combination of realism, political will and leadership.

Second, law, especially international law, is inextricably linked to politics. Law itself is the outcome of a political process. The very decision to apply to an international court is a political one, as well as the decision of what to apply for. The same holds true regarding the application and implementation of judicial decisions. Thus, exclusive or excessive invocation of the black letter of the law as the sole basis for negotiation, in a metaphysical-like capacity and detached from the framework of political realities surrounding its operation and application, is also problematic and utopian. Important, substantive political arguments form an integral part of the reasoning of states, completing the picture in conjunction with the legal ones, and can rarely be readily dismissed. This is the reason international tribunals, including the International Court of Justice, take these into account during their deliberations.

Third, Public International Law is not static, but dynamic; thankfully so, otherwise it would be rendered counterproductive, obsolete and irrelevant. Realities change and the law changes to adapt to them. The law cannot and should not be invoked in a utilitarian, a la carte fashion. And in any case, it needs to be interpreted by states and tribunals within a framework of current circumstances and in a spirit of these being reflected. Public international law can equally be a vehicle of progress and a hindrance mechanism. This is the starting point for beliefs regarding the monopoly of legality or the legitimacy of recourse to force that have contributed to some of the region’s misfortunes.

There can be no automatic replication even of successful cases and no routine application of principles or elements. Each case is unique, and a number of conditions need to be examined every time, ranging from the nature of the dispute, the circumstances surrounding it, the forum or organ of settlement, etc. The Israel-Lebanon agreement, e.g., can serve as a beacon and an excellent example, but it cannot be reproduced in an automated fashion in other regional disputes. For instance, despite their similarities with the Israel-Lebanon case, the Cyprus issue or the Aegean disputes, due to their longevity, have been left to evolve into something nearly existential, involving a sense of justice, dignity, national pride, territorial integrity and sovereignty, making it exceptionally difficult for them to be solved as a package. At the same time, disputes like the Aegean one, are typically, essentially crises of trust. In this case, for Turkey it concerns losses that presently cause threats; and for Greece, it is a threat to its sovereign rights. Thus, for both, in essence and despite or beyond the rhetoric, it is not a primarily legal issue but an issue of sovereignty, treated as a security issue, with important legal aspects. It is a classic case of mistrust and enmity: obstructing constructive and inclusive approaches. This would thus even pose questions and challenges to respecting and implementing a decision potentially taken by the ICJ or other organ. This is a frame of mind; and it needs to be reversed, if there’s going to be any progress: cooperating rather than quarrelling, starting with energy.

Renewable sources do not have to be centres of conflict as, unlike fossil fuels, they are not commodities, hence there are no issues of ownership leading to conflict. Their value-added lies in interconnectedness

A Way forward

Notwithstanding the existence of individual, long-standing bilateral and multilateral disputes in the East Med, international and regional realities are rapidly changing and with them the framework for the resolution of these disputes. Geopolitically, the post-Ukraine war security environment, but also the various normalization processes already achieved or still in the making, sketch a very different terrain. At the same time, the changes in energy realities also open a new window to the future: energy transformation, the expansion of renewable energies and greater interconnection present several opportunities for cooperation. The future of energy in the region and beyond eventually lies in electrification, interconnectedness and renewable sources. But this way, advancing energy cooperation also brings new economic perspectives and incentives for political cooperation. Renewable sources do not have to be centres of conflict as, unlike fossil fuels, they are not commodities, hence there are no issues of ownership leading to conflict. Their value-added lies in interconnectedness. A good example can be found in the electric interconnection between Greece and Turkey, which operates well, despite the existence of serious bilateral disputes.

States and actors should move forward in establishing these new parameters, and with a sense of urgency, in order not to replicate mistakes of the past that led to time lost and opportunities missed. First, they need to create interdependence through connectivity. This will facilitate both the efficacy of interconnection and rapprochement initiatives. Second, they need to be constructive through deconstruction, particularly of expectations and myths, both surrounding the exploitation of energy resources that have effectively hindered their development and those that pertain to the uniqueness and alleged intractability of certain disputes. The important recent unprecedented examples of reconciliation serve as excellent proof of this. Thirdly, they need to act as fast as they can. Disputes left untackled graduate to become bigger issues; multi-level, multi-actor and multi-layer ones that become nearly impossible to solve. Every passing day that a dispute remains unresolved sees the addition of new layers. Or, as the case may be in some of the issues, states must solve what they can, before there’s nothing to negotiate about or nobody to negotiate with. 


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(Header photo: Przemek Pietrak, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)