Exclusive Economic Zone and maritime power

(To Renato Scarfi)

The definitive go-ahead of the Senate to the bill concerning the establishment of an Italian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), promoted with 217 votes in favor and only one abstention allows, in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also Italy to intervene in the Mediterranean to protect its economic, commercial and political interests.

In recent years, in fact, some major basic issues that gravitate around the use of the sea have come to the attention of the international community with increasing intensity and which today have come to condition the foreign policy of all the coastal countries of the world. The main ones are the problem of the exploitation of its energy and mineral resources, the freedom of navigation along the maritime trade routes, the conscious and sustainable supply of fish resources, the defense of this environment, which is very generous but also extremely delicate. These are all chapters that make up the variegated book of the complex relationships between coastal states.

Importance of the EEZ

On the sea, the only principle that has reigned for centuries has been its freedom of use. A rule that has governed maritime traffic since the time of Grotius and for which any explanation seemed superfluous but which, with the increase in interests relating to the procurement of its wealth, and the growing desire of certain states to claim rights over portions more and more of the sea, it was necessary to prepare international legal instruments of guarantee and control that would make it possible to regulate access to marine resources.

With the first and third United Nations conferences on the law of the sea, commonly known as the Geneva Convention on the High Seas (1958) and that of Montego Bay of December 10, 1982 (Unclos I and III) the international community has provided a solid legal basis to ensure the freedom of navigation and use of the sea. The aforementioned Montego Bay Convention, in particular, was then transposed into national law with Law no. 2 but, up to now, no initiatives in this sense had ever been implemented.

The aforementioned conference, together with the discussion of the legal aspects of updating the traditional law of the sea and the rights and duties of the various States on the different portions of the sea, in relation to the geography of each with respect to the sea, also addressed the question of the rights of exploitation of marine biological and energy resources. The discussion (eleven sessions in nine years) highlighted intuitive differences of views as each participating country was the bearer of different interests, the result of particular advantages.

In addition to the particular areas facing the coasts (territorial waters and contiguous area) that define the territorial sea, in which the coastal State can exercise police, customs, health and immigration controls, the subject of the Convention was the adaptation of transit along the Strait (the extension of the territorial sea has, in fact, canceled any high seas channels and made it necessary to provide for a "harmless passage" within the territorial sea of ​​the Straits) and the birth of the new figure of archipelagic states, or those states consisting of one or more archipelagos or other islands. This entails, under certain conditionsi, the possibility of tracing straight baselines between its islands, with an expansion of its territorial sea. The extreme limit of the marine area of ​​interest of the coastal State is represented by the morphological aspects of the continental shelf, which may extend up to a maximum of 350 nautical miles (one mile is approximately 1.852 meters) from the coast or beyond 100 nautical miles. starting from the 2.500 meter depth isobath. Over this area, the coastal state exercises sovereign rights over the exploration and exploitation of natural resources (minerals, hydrocarbons) and sedentary biological resources, i.e. those living organisms that remain immobile on the platform or that move while always remaining in contact with the seabed. .

But the most significant innovation was the definition of the EEZ. In a nutshell, it is one sea ​​area extending from the territorial sea up to a maximum of 200 nautical miles, within which the coastal State holds a series of rights and duties.

Its economic and geopolitical importance appears clear: in this area the coastal state exercises, among other things, sovereign rights regarding the exploration and exploitation, conservation and management of the natural resources of the sea bed as well as (and herein lies the novelty with respect to the continental shelf) on the water column above. In this area, the State also has exclusive jurisdiction and rights on the installation of artificial islands, on scientific research and on the prevention of marine pollution.

Even if the EEZ does not fall within the definition of high seas (therefore totally free), the majority of the provisions relating to the latter are applied to this area and, above all, those on freedom of navigation. This has so far prevented the risk of one creeping jurisdiction by coastal countries.

The economic and geopolitical reach of the EEZ is enormous and some states have benefited more than others. Like France, for example, for which the establishment of the EEZ had particularly significant effects. With 11 million sq km, its EEZ represents, in fact, the third maritime space in the world, after that of the United States and the United Kingdom. Then there are particular cases of countries that can make their economic area related to the sea grow dramatically (in relation to their land area), such as Bermuda, with an EEZ 7.800 times its territory, or the Maldives (3.220 times). or like Nauru, a very small island state of Micronesia, with an EEZ equal to 20.300 times its territory or, coming closer to us, like Malta (about 270 times its territory). And the Mediterranean countries, whose dimensions do not allow EEZs of 200 miles, are beginning to understand the real implications. From an economic point of view, Mediterranean countries may have relatively limited EEZs, certainly not the same size as oceanic countries. From a geopolitical point of view, due to the size of our sea, once all the coastal countries have declared their EEZ, there will no longer be areas of the high seas.

To underline once more its implications, it is sufficient to think that, globally, the various EEZs will occupy approximately one hundred million square kilometers, equal to one third of the entire extension of the seas and two thirds of all land emerged.

It is therefore clear why today, in full economic competition, the countries of the world have "woken up" and are "running" to ensure an EEZ that meets their geopolitical and economic needs and interests.

These include Italy, whose parliamentary process began in 2019, following the unilateral Algerian proclamation of an exclusive economic zone of 400 miles. In a small sea like the Mediterranean, this meant assigning oneself the right to use marine resources up to the limit of Spanish (Ibiza) and Italian (Sardinia) territorial waters, in contravention of article 74 of the aforementioned UN convention on the law of the sea. Responding to the protests in Rome, the authorities of Algiers immediately declared themselves available to discuss it again with Italy. However, the alarm light had now turned on and on 20 December of the same year a bill was presented, then approved on 5 November 2020 in the Chamber and, as already mentioned, recently definitively approved in the Senate.

However, its own economic area on the sea is useless if it is not accompanied by a credible and coherent instrument of control and coercion. The growing and often bitter economic competition in a now globalized world makes it necessary to have effective tools capable of enforcing international standards, even if necessary, with the use of force.

The exercise of maritime power to protect national interests

The freedom of the seas, in fact, is not limited only to the surface, by now also extending to the airspace above it and to the part below it, including the seabed and subfloor.

While until a little over a hundred years ago the military maritime forces were essentially naval, i.e. able to operate on the surface and under the surface of the sea, today the air vehicle has also been effectively inserted in the new three-dimensional operational environment, which has demonstrated the its ability to operate validly also on the sea, in support of naval operations. Therefore, maritime power must be understood today as air-naval power, being the modern maritime forces made up of both naval and air capabilities. In other words, helicopters and embarked fighters, together with maritime patrol vessels, must be considered to all intents and purposes as instruments that actively contribute to the management of maritime power and the protection of national interests at sea, in the same way as surface units and underwater boats. Embarked helicopters and planes, in particular, they can no longer be considered as “additional” means to naval capabilities, but they they are in effect ship's weapon systems, being intimately related and representing its operational extension for both surveillance and combat.

In an era of great competition, it is unthinkable to be able to protect national economic and political interests on the sea without a sufficient availability of bases and air and naval means. This irrefutable fact, far from wanting to represent a support for those currents of thought that see the greatness of their country based only on the sword and on comparison and not above all on collaboration and well-being, demonstrates instead that denying the importance of a modern, efficient naval instrument, with qualitatively and quantitatively adequate air-naval means, with well-equipped, well-trained and well-motivated men and women does nothing but limit the international political and economic horizon of the State.

It should always be remembered that the exercise of maritime power, as history teaches us, has not only had a great influence in the history of the world, but will continue to have it to an ever greater extent in the future, precisely because of the growing importance that marine resources and maritime trade routes will continue to have. Under the surface of the sea there are still huge reserves of food, energy resources, raw materials which, if taken with an eco-sustainable approach, are able to guarantee well-being for centuries. On the surface, the possible interruption (or slowdown) of the maritime communication lines of a country with the rest of the globalized world involves more and more economic and moral disturbances that are heavily reflected on the lifestyle of peoples and their perception of the world.

The growing competition for the achievement of underwater energy resources is lately seriously wearing down international relations between the coastal countries and risks triggering dangerous confrontations. Just think of the aggressive and arrogant Turkish posture in the eastern and central Mediterranean or the claims of Beijing in the South China Sea. The exercise of trade by sea and the ability to withdraw marine resources is, therefore, subject to the strength of the country and its willingness to use it to protect its economic and commercial interests..

An adequate and modern air-naval military instrument, therefore, if on the one hand it is conditio sine qua non for the maintenance of freedom of navigation and to allow access to underwater resources, it is also decisive in cooling, containing or resolving the crises that occur through the waterways and which often significantly affect the economies of the countries that live in trade by sea. We have seen how the limitations resulting from the closure, for purely technical reasons, of an important maritime trade route (Suez Canal) have caused billions in damage throughout the Western world.

All of this implies that in the future, maritime routes and marine resources will increasingly be the target of the appetites of those who want to destabilize our world with economic, political and moral conflicts, perhaps masked by religious or ideological conflicts (too often used by some ruling classes of the moment to gather support), but at the base of which the economic interests of the peoples will always remain.


39 years after the approval of the Montego Bay Convention, Italy too (as we have seen under the pressure of the aggressiveness of other coastal countries), is equipped with a tool to assert its economic, commercial and political interests in the Mediterranean .

However, having the legal instrument and not having the strength (and the will) to enforce it could prove to be seriously counterproductive, undermining the nation's international prestige, with all the foreseeable political and economic implications.

In this context, the military and commercial fleets are of vital importance for the security and prosperity of nations, especially when, due to the scarcity of the country's resources, production capacity is subordinated to imports by sea. For Italy the vital need for imports from the sea is evident and, even if it is geographically defined as a peninsula, it can be assimilated to an island when it comes to its strong dependence on maritime imports and, therefore, on the availability of maritime communication lines and the possibility of accessing underwater energy reserves. Historically, when it had fleets available to protect its interests on the sea, it prospered, when it did not have units available to counter the will of the opponent of the moment its economy has regressed.

Therefore, all the fundamental assumptions remain which make the control of maritime routes and submarine resources the basis of the overall economy of the States. In a globalized world, economic interests are increasingly varied, but it is certain that the protection of national economic and commercial interests at sea will continue to be of fundamental importance for the well-being of peoples and of Italy in particular. In this context, the exercise of maritime power and the consequent ability to impose one's will on the seas, without absolutely wanting to represent a threat to other peaceful peoples, will constitute our main source of international political and economic influence.

i Such as, for example, the respect of a certain ratio between the surface of the incorporated waters and that of the lands to which they refer, the limitations deriving from the rights of neighboring states or the right of harmless passage, called “aruicpelagic passage”.

Photo: Euronews / Prime Minister's Office / Antonioptg / Turkish Armed Forces