A reversal of policy doesn’t have to be bad. Particularly if there’s bipartisan agreement on it. But if it’s a reversal of a long-term strategy, based on the assessment of every government of the last 40 years, then it needs to be noted and the consequences assessed.
The finance minister’s announcement that Malta intends to declare an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) might sound like a technocratic decision to permit Malta to explore, conserve and exploit its maritime resources better. But a strategic reversal is what it is.
In parliament, the opposition, through Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, supported the proposal while stating that Malta will have to pay due attention to competing claims over the same maritime territory from other countries. Clyde Caruana agreed, while saying the benefits outweigh any disadvantages.
It’s a bit more complicated and dangerous than that, even if we probably have no realistic alternative.
Some background. Exclusive Economic Zones have their basis in international law, the 1982 UN Law of the Sea. Its origins go back to a signal Maltese proposal in 1967, the brainchild of Malta’s then ambassador to the UN, Arvid Pardo. It aimed to ensure orderly management of the resources of the sea – all living and non-living resources, anything that could be explored, conserved or exploited. Pardo suggested legally creative ways of managing these resources as well of resolving disputes.
It’s no coincidence that one of the world’s leading authorities on EEZ is Maltese, David Attard, and that, under him, Malta hosts one of the leading teaching centres of international maritime law. Expertise is acquired by individual talent and hard work, of course, but being Maltese can make one highly sensitive to, and interested in, what’s at stake.
In the Mediterranean, declaring EEZ is more likely to produce disputes than resolve them. The law gives states the right to declare an EEZ based on an area extending up to 200 nautical miles from its coastline. The Mediterranean is too small to permit all its states to declare a zone without overlapping an EEZ claimed by another.
Declaring a zone peacefully means agreeing to a boundary with a neighbour, which means compromise. In practice, you often have several neighbours concerned about the same bit of sea. Tensions are likely.
Turkey has threatened Greece with war if the latter claims certain boundaries. Turkey’s own calculus ignores Crete. It’s for such reasons that, for a long time, Mediterranean states avoided declaring EEZs (even if, say, they had declared one on their Atlantic coastline).
Malta’s own understanding of regional stability used to be that declaring an EEZ was suboptimal in the Mediterranean. The optimal solution was a regional infrastructure that permitted joint cooperation, development and management of the sea’s resources. The peculiarities of the sea (its mineral resources, for example, are mobile, unlike minerals buried in land territory) call for special political instruments.
States are lodging their claims before they’re compromised by other neighbours– Ranier Fsadni
This view was rooted in a vested interest in regional peace, given our open economy and small size. Any protracted conflict in our proximity will reduce our autonomy and prosperity.
The prospects of building such a regional infrastructure have long been fading. Before the Arab Spring, the ruling families in Tunisia and Libya had already begun to eye adding fishing rights to their personal rents.
Those families are gone but the stakes have become more important. New technologies are making the other resources of the sea, living and non-living, more economically valuable.
Several boundary agreements between different pairs of states have been drafted and in some cases agreed. Last year, Greece and Italy agreed on boundaries. Cyprus and Egypt have a treaty.
It’s reported Italy has a draft boundary agreement with Libya, which also has a memorandum with Turkey that, however, ignores Greek claims and is based on a controversial interpretation of the law. Egypt and Turkey were going to have a similar agreement until the former, furious at Turkey over its regional policy, backtracked.
Behind each agreement lies a tense political background, based as much on fear of potential developments as on economic optimism.
Turkey’s agreements are hostile towards Greece and reflect its growing regional role as a military power.
Libya’s agreements can be seen optimistically: as one way in which the country can diversify its economy and escape the ‘curse of oil’. But many observers believe the memorandum with Turkey, which threatens regional stability, may be a result of Turkey’s military and financial aid to the Tripoli-based government in its conflict with the forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar.
What we are seeing is, effectively, a zone race – a race to delimit boundaries. In an environment that’s increasingly unstable, states are lodging their claims before they’re compromised by other neighbours reaching an agreement between themselves.
Some call for an EU-wide EEZ. It would strengthen the negotiating hand of individual EU member states in one sense but possibly weaken it in others. Given the background military threats, it could change the character of the EU itself.
None of this, on reflection, should be a surprise. Any ambitious state needs to be a maritime power. Many of the rising international tensions – such as in the South China Sea, Russian interests in Syria and Turkey’s in our own patch – can be traced to this imperative.
Malta may well have no alternative than to declare an EEZ of its own. But we should not be sanguine. The economic prospects may be good but they depend on a foundation of political peace. We have some comprehensive strategic rethinking to do.
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