The Mediterranean evokes images of holiday beaches, with tourists enjoying the balmy weather of this region for most of the year. But this is also a hotspot of geopolitical interests.

The risk of a regional war sparked bet­ween neighbours is never to be lightly dismissed.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), enacted in 1982, governs how maritime borders should be delineated between neighbouring states.

Countries calculate their maritime claims according to a simplified outline of their territory. They can claim up to 12 nautical miles of the territorial sea. Beyond this, there is a 12 nautical-mile zone of buffer space, known as the contiguous zone. Next come the largest areas of maritime sovereignty, the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) extending up to 200 nautical miles from the coast. Here, states have sole rights for drilling, fishing and mining.

This may seem like a simple enough system to determine where to draw the maritime borderline. But nothing can ever be simple in the Mediterranean, where many mainland and island countries share the coastline. Geopolitical and economic interests give rise to different interpretations of the UNCLOS provisions.

Malta has started the process of declaring an exclusive economic zone in the central Mediterranean with the potential to extend its responsibilities and rights by an area that exceeds 71,000 square kilometres. Finance Minister Clyde Caruana has secured the support of the opposition party on this strategic political move.

So far, the government has still not spelt out what the implications of this decision could be.

Times of Malta columnist Ranier Fsadni argues that “What we are seeing is a zone race – a race to delimit boundaries. In an increasingly unstable environment, states lodge their claims before they are compromised by other neighbours reaching an agreement bet­ween themselves”.

This is indeed what is happening. Last year, Greece and Italy signed a new agreement delimiting their exclusive economic zones in the Ionian Sea. This deal, in turn, is notable not only because it involves one of our nearest neighbours but because it arguably undermines another agreement reached late last year between Turkey and Libya’s Government of National Accord demarcating their own EEZs in the Mediterranean.

International energy media maintain that the countries of the Mediterranean that could potentially benefit the most from an EEZ declaration are Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Malta.

The EEZ grants a sovereign state the right to exploit and use natural resources in the sea, seabed and underground. But the notion of EEZ is a relatively new one. Its gestation during the second half of the 20th century was slow and arduous.

In the last few decades, intense and unprecedented geopolitical issues emerged between some neighbouring states. While the EEZ confers upon a state a sovereign right, these rights are subject to several restrictions. For instance, in 1985, the International Court of Justice ruled that, while establishing their EEZs, both Malta and Libya should stop at meridian 15º10’, which is where the zone of interest of third countries (Italy) begins.

In the real world of global politics, international law cannot be equipped by and enjoy the means of forced execution, which are inherent to the national legal system of every sovereign state.

EEZ effectiveness will always depend on the consensus of the states with adjacent coasts and overlapping EEZs, which is not a legal prerequisite.

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