Enough reasons for optimism
Many in Athens and Tirana are optimistic. They strongly believe that a negotiation on the basis of the Greek-Italian deal can be of great benefit in resolving the Greek-Albanian border dispute. They see it as the golden opportunity for a compromise that will accommodate the concerns of both sides satisfactorily.
This issue is currently a high priority for Greece’s foreign policy due to the strategic implications it can have in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. In the context of a comprehensive policy on the delimitation of maritime zones with all its neighbors, Athens is oriented towards the closing of this pending issue with Tirana. The conclusion of this specific chapter in the Ionian Sea will give Greek diplomacy the opportunity to invest more capital in other more complicated issues in its southern and eastern borders, allowing the train that set in motion a few weeks ago in Rome, to reach its final destination.
The timing of this agreement is of great importance. The deterioration of relations between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean Sea Status quo, where both countries are still quarreling over delimitation of the continental shelf, the ownership of various islands and the drilling rights for hydrocarbons, indicates that the time is ripe for a push toward resolution with Albania. The conclusion of negotiations with Albania and the establishment of a successful precedent in the Ionian Sea not only will give Greece a strong advantage but it also goes against Turkey’s ambitions of Eastern Mediterranean hegemony. This is why Greek diplomacy has been long seeking agreements for declaring EEZs with both Albania and Italy in the Ionian Sea.
The conclusion of an agreement with Greece on the delimitation of their maritime zones would be also beneficial for the Albanian side. As long as this dispute is not satisfactorily resolved, Albania will not be benefited from the wealth that the Ionian Sea exploration can offer. A crucial point is that the Greek-Italian accord has cleared up a number of Albanian concerns expressed in the Constitutional Court’s decision over the 2009 agreement, an outcome that should do nothing but help the resolution process with both Greece and Italy. Considering the methodology used in the 2009 agreement with Athens as severely unfair to Albanian maritime interests, Albanian diplomatic circles are in favor of a compromise on the basis of the principles used in the Greek-Italian agreement. They see it as more appropriate in ensuring a fair division.
Even though such an agreement can bring a number of benefits for both countries, its achievement is not an easy task. Owing to the deep distrust between Greece and Albania, many local analysts do not share optimistic projects.
The problematic past could complicate negotiations
Even though the consensus reached between Italy and Greece on the delimitation of their maritime zone is a step in the right direction, there are considerable worries that negotiations with Albania would never be able to accomplish the task of bringing both sides into an agreement on all issues. The picture of Greek-Albanian relations emerged from the last years’ developments is quite problematic casting doubt on whether both sides will find a compromise that will accommodate equally their demands and national interests.
Many open issues between Greece and Albania, have not been resolved mainly because of each country’s intense nationalism and pervasive mistrust of the other country. Therefore, the picture seems to be mixed. On the one hand, the current governments in both Tirana and Athens are pro-resolution, showing a political willingness towards this direction. On the other hand, the previous tactic of putting an issue of national interest into a nationalist and patriotic gear could divert the political will or any kind of diplomatic flexibility that is necessary for such kind of negotiations hindering significantly the possibilities for a fair compromise. It is uncertain whether and to what extent Albanian and Greek governments are ready to abandon the old fashion politics and reap the benefits of the new momentum created by Greek-Italian agreement.
The Maritime Dispute: A Dark Cloud over Greek-Albanian Relations
The 2009 Agreement for the Delimitation of the Greek-Albanian Continental Shelf and Maritime Zones has become a highly sensitive issue in Tirana-Athens’ bilateral agenda. The issue of the Exclusive Economic Zones is considered to be the main problem affecting their relations. The two countries have been on a sea border dispute after Albania’s Constitutional Court decision to nullify the 2009 agreement due to territorial integrity and constitutional violations.
The Constitutional court of Albania has composed a host of conditions which will need to be met in case of renegotiation, including the partial failure of the first negotiation teams to apply the basic principles of international law and the non-consideration of the islands as special circumstances for the delimitation of the Greek-Albanian maritime zones. Therefore, the Greek-Albanian border dispute is centered on two main issues: the methodology used for the delimitation of their maritime boundaries and the status given to the islands and rocks that exist in the Corfu region. These two parameters are crucial for the demarcation of the borderline and are likely to keep the Tirana-Athens channel busy in the coming years.
In the 2009 agreement, the delimitation of the maritime boundaries between Greece and Albanian was done using the media line (equidistance) principle giving region’s islands full rights on maritime zones. According to the Constitutional Court of Albania, the application of this principle has brought an unfavorable result for Tirana, which consequently caused the loss of a considerable area of water. In this context, Tirana is in favor of concluding talks on the Sea Pact, based on the spirit and the respect of the Court’s decision. For the Albanian part, there is no issue of whether it will read the decision of the Court – the decision is clear for them and should be respected. For a long time, the Greek part remained adamant in Albania’s demands on a renegotiation asking for the enforcement of the agreement despite the decision of the Constitutional Court.
So close, yet so far away
In 2018, Tirana and Athens through a policy of small steps resumed negotiations on the sea pact but never reached their finalization even though the two parts were very close to an agreement using UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) methodology. Athens and Tirana agreed on a number of issues such as the expansion of Greek waters to 12 miles in the Ionian Sea and the consideration of marine bays as “closed”, but most importantly in this new phase of negotiations, they showed diplomatic flexibility by recognizing each others’ concerns. The renegotiation by the Greek side was seen as an acceptance of the Albanian argumentation that in the 2009 agreement the demarcation of the borderline was done partially with an incorrect methodologically manner.
Even though this considerable progress, the resignation of the then Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, the internal tensions over the deal with North Macedonia, and the change of government later left the completion of the agreement with Albania in a pending status. It seems that Greece’s current New Democracy government will continue the progress left by its predecessors. Immediately after the signing of the agreement with Italy, the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs announced the commencement of a new wave of talks with Tirana as an aspiration of Greece’s foreign policy to reach agreements with all its neighbors within the context of the international law.
So far, the Greek government has not given any details on the new negotiation framework with Albania. While in opposition, New Democracy strongly criticized the way that the government of SYRIZA was negotiating with Albania considering the maritime deal agreed by its officials in 2009 a non-negotiable issue. Having this in mind, it is necessary for the Greek government to clarify its position on that as well as to decide whether it will continue with the tactics and the strategy adopted by its predecessors.
In 2018, Tirana and Athens tried to negotiate solutions for their thorny issues through the finalization of a mechanism that would result in a package agreement. The two sides had agreed to focus on their discussions on a package that categorized the open issues on different baskets and with the principle that nothing has been agreed as long as there is no agreement to all issues. So far, it is unclear whether, in the new talks with Albania, the issue for the delimitation of the maritime zones will be discussed as part of this package or separately and on what conditions.
To move forward – all in one package, Tirana and Athens needs to show strategic clarity. Only a determined and consistent approach to the issue will allow the dark cloud over their bilateral relations to lift. The new momentum created by the Greek-Italian agreement could work towards this direction.
The Greek-Italian Agreement as a Driving Guideline in Solving the Maritime Dispute with Albania
The delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zones is of great strategic importance for any state because it enables them to exercise full sovereignty and sovereign rights in a clearly defined area as well as full utilization of this area’s natural resources. As such, the agreement reached between Rome and Athens can be considered as a breakthrough demonstrating what can be achieved with political will.
The fact that this agreement still belongs to the sphere of good intentions since some issues such as the boundaries’ adjustment of the blocks set out in the Ionian Sea for hydrocarbon exploitation remains to be resolved at a later phase does not downsize its importance. On the contrary, the good intentions, the courage, and the leadership showed by the Greek and Italian leaders would inspire the conclusion of this process with Albania. The prospects for resolution are promising because the new agreement establishes a legal precedent that could be used as a guideline for the delimitation of Albania’s EEZs with both Rome and Athens.
Higher possibilities for a compromise with Italy
The possibilities for a compromise with Italy in the near future are higher. The delimitation of maritime zones between Italy and Albania belongs to a category with medium difficulty. Tirana and Rome have already agreed on the delimitation of their continental shelf through the 1992 agreement. The only open chapter between them is the delimitation of their EEZs.
Greece and Italy resolved their EEZ borders based on the UN Convention Law of the Sea enhancing in this way the element of fairness. It seems that the principle of the Median Line applied in the Greek-Italian case satisfies also the Albanian national interests. This increases the possibilities of the same methodology to be the rule for the delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zones with Albania. Another crucial point is that the Greek-Italian agreement cleared up the issue of the expansion of Greek waters in the Ionian as well as the issue of the Italian fishing rights with a compromise, eradicating a problem that could hinder future negotiations with Albania.
The complexity of the Greek-Albanian Case
The Greek-Albanian case offers a more complex picture putting the process for the delimitation of their maritime boundaries in a category with considerable difficulty. Both countries negotiation teams have to preserve a difficult equilibrium by addressing this very sensitive issue in a very measured way, recognizing the importance of respecting the jurisdiction of Albania’s Constitutional Court, while taking into consideration any parameter that could hinder Greece’s strategic interests in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, interests which are very much linked to its national security.
It is obvious that Greece will not tolerate any objection from the Albanian side on issues that are of particular importance and favors the Greek position in relation to the Greek-Turkish conflict. In any case, Athens will try to avoid any compromise in the Ionian Sea that will weaken its position towards Turkey in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. However, keeping the Ionian-Mediterranean equilibrium will be a real challenging task for the Greek diplomacy, especially when its interests will come in contradiction with the Albanian red lines set in the decision of the Constitutional Court. It is exactly at this point where the two parts will be asked to show their diplomatic flexibility in order to achieve the necessary balance.
The demarcation method used in the 2009 agreement and the status given to the islands were contested by the Constitutional Court of Albania on the basis of not respecting the principle of a “fair solution”. An agreement between Greece and Albania on the model of the one Athens agreed with Rome but customized in the specific geographic characteristics and specificities of the maritime area between Greece and Albania could lead to a common denominator.
The status of the islands in the Corfu region
The existence of a group of islands in the Corfu region has complicated the delimitation of maritime zones between the two countries. As an impact, the issue of recognizing full, partial, or no rights to them is raised. A crucial point at the recent Greek-Italian accord is the status given to these islands. In the 1977 agreement with Italy, the islands of Othoni and Erikuza were given partial effect. However, this tactic of a reduced influence on the islands was not followed with Albania. The 2009 agreement gives islands, wrongfully according to the decision of the Constitutional Court, a full effect in setting the Albanian-Greek boundary line.
Another contested part of the 2009 Greek-Albanian agreement, also considered problematic by the Constitutional Court, was the treatment of the reefs or shallows of Barketa, which was also given full effect, making it equivalent to the Albanian continental land even though it is a small uninhabited rocky mass, without economic life. It is exactly this part of the 2009 agreement and consequently its contestation initially by the Albanian opposition and later by the Constitutional Court that raised suspicions of foreign interference.
The Foreign Intervention
There are suspicions of Turkish intervention, demanding Tirana to retract the arrangement as it offered Greece full island rights, which carried negative implications concerning Ankara’s hydrocarbon interests in the Aegean and East Mediterranean. However, Albanian officials do not share this view rejecting any kind of intervention from Ankara and maintaining that the annulment of the 2009 agreement was a matter of constitutional order. This kind of argumentation has not convinced the Greek part. Many in Athens still believe that Ankara has long worked not only to block the declaration of EEZs between Greece and Albania but also between Greece and its other neighbors.
With or without Turkish intervention, the status of the islands will be a hot issue in the future negotiations between Athens and Tirana because of the significant effect it will have in the determination of the boundary line that will separate the territorial sea of the two countries. Athens is very much interested in cultivating and maintaining the full effect of the islands since it serves its national interests in Eastern Mediterranean, while Tirana expresses concerns about the unfavorable results this tactic could bring for the Albanian part. It seems that the two governments have different readings on this sensitive issue. Therefore, it remains to be seen how the negotiation teams will deal with it. In addition, any Turkish intervention in the future should not be underestimated, especially in the case of a compromise which Turkey will immensely dislike.
Exploration rights and borders
Into what might already be coined as a complex situation, the potential oil or gas exploitations in the waters of the Ionian Sea represent another issue of concern between the two countries. In the very recent past, Tirana and Athens have engaged in a dispute over exploration rights and borders. Because of the vast amounts of carbonate reefs in the Ionian Sea, the extension of territorial waters and the ownership of the continental shelf under these waters has always been a hotly debated topic.
The Albanian part has opposed the Greek hydrocarbon activity in the region supporting that “at least one of the exploration blocks is located into the Exclusive Economic Zones of Albania”. Tirana underlines that since there is no agreement on the delimitation of the continental shelf between Greece, Albania, and Italy, no act of research or exploitation should be undertaken without the consent of all parts.The unclear situation concerning the exploration blocks in the Ionian Sea reveals the urgent need for a Greek-Albanian maritime deal as the only development that will allow real progress in both countries’ hydrocarbon exploration plans.
The issue for the delimitation of maritime zones between Greece and Albania has been put into a nationalistic and patriotic gear leaving little space for rational argumentation in the public debate. In Albania, the 2009 agreement was preceded by a widespread public outcry over allegations of a grab land by Greece. In Greece, the agreement was presented has a huge diplomatic victory, while any sign for renegotiation was seen as a weak point that could damage the national interests of Athens.
At the heart of these perceptions is the perennial problem of mistrust; the fear that one would alter the strategic balance or gain vital resources at the others’ expense. This would in essence make difficult the acceptance of any agreement by the public. Greek and Albanian public would more rapidly accept a negotiated settlement that will be based on the principle of fairness due to the greater achievements of its objectives. The time is currently ripe for a serious resolution process to begin. The Greek-Italian agreement has set not only the populace but even the politicians and media in a more amicable state of mind.
The way forward
The Greek-Italian agreement is a good place to restart, but it is not the “magic wand” that will resolve all issues with Albania. There are no ready-made solutions, nor is there a one-size-fits-all approach. But sooner, than later, Greece and Albania will need to set in place a more effective policy addressing all specifics that characterize the maritime area between them, in an effort to reach an equitable way to delimit their maritime zones in the Ionian Sea.
BLEDAR FETA is an International Relations expert