26th Oct 2016

EU's Black Sea border set in stone

The UN's top court has ruled against Ukraine in a maritime border dispute with EU member state Romania, in a decision which holds the key to major oil and gas reserves in the Black Sea.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on Tuesday (3 February) decided that Snake Island - a Ukraine-owned rocky outcrop - does not entitle the country to exclusive ownership of a 12,000 square km coastal shelf, beyond a 12 nautical mile radius from the islet.

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The verdict - which cannot be appealed - means Romania can exploit 80 percent of the 100 billion cubic metres of gas and 15 million tonnes of crude oil in the disputed zone, leaving the rest to Ukraine.

Ukraine deputy foreign minister Oleksandr Kupchyshyn called the ruling a "wise compromise," while Romanian diplomat Bogdan Aurescu said it was "correct," Reuters reports.

"The judgment draws an equitable line between both parties," ICJ spokesman Maxim Schouppe told EUobserver. "But in the line the court has drawn, Romania got a larger chunk than Ukraine of the disputed area."

The long-running border dispute has prevented either side from organising tenders for interested companies, such as Petrom, Romgaz, Lukoil, Total, Shell and OMV, to get the fuel out of the ground.

The once-Romanian islet has been de facto owned by the Soviet Union and later Ukraine since 1947. Romania formally ceded Snake Island to Ukraine in 1997 but the two sides could not set maritime boundaries and asked the ICJ to intervene.

Snake Island - about the size of 20 soccer pitches - houses a 100-man strong Ukrainian science mission, a lighthouse and a cashpoint. It was named by Greece in the Renaissance period, but its history dates to pre-Christian times as the legendary burial place of Greek hero Achilles.

The EU inherited a number of border disputes as part of its 2004 and 2007 rounds of enlargement.

Border problems are treated by the European Commission and member states as bilateral issues. But they have a habit of impacting EU-level policies.

The commission in January proposed creating a new diplomatic mission to help Slovenia settle a 17-year old dispute with Croatia over boundaries in the Adriatic Sea after Slovenia blocked Croatia's EU accession talks over the row last year.

Cyprus' inability to re-unite the island following a conflict with Turkey in 1974 has seen the Mediterranean EU member freeze parts of Turkey's EU accession talks.

EU member states last November also voiced concern about lack of final border arrangements between the Baltic states and Russia.

Russia has ratified border pacts with Lithuania and Latvia but the demarcation of boundaries - the installation of physical markers - is yet to take place.

Russia has refused to ratify a border agreement with Estonia however, after Tallinn inserted reference to Russia's 1920 recognition of Estonia's independence into the treaty preamble.

"The EU wants legal certainty of its external border and a stable basis for relations between its member states and Russia," an internal EU paper of November 2008 said. "The EU regrets that aspects of history have led to difficulties. It is important to take a forward-looking approach."

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