BAKU – Portuguese lawmakers have filed a legal claimthat would change the maritime boundaries of Portugal. If validated, the exclusive jurisdiction of Lisbon would extend from its national coastline to the outer limit of its geographic continental shelf in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean. The new territories would include vast areas of seabed and subsoil beyond the exclusive economic zone, full of mineral riches. In addition to its financial nature, the plan would also reconnect Portugal to the Atlantic, as it was in the past, and thereby help Lisbon to rediscover its seafaring identity.
Luck of the Portuguese
As the westernmost nation in Europe, Portugal has historically kept a distance from global affairs, preferring to focus on the Atlantic Ocean instead. Its seafaring culture produced a nation of sailors and explorers who sought their fortunes in faraway continents. Trade, as well as cultural, scientific and technological exchanges resulting thereof, lifted Portugal as a global powerhouse. By the 15th century, Lisbon had established a network of trading posts and colonies across Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and South America. By every form of measurement, Portugal was a powerful empire whose reach extended all over the world. Yet, like most powerhouses of the past, Portugal eventually lost control of its overseas colonies, and its influence diminished to its immediate periphery.
Today, the Portuguese Republic consists of three distinct territories. There is continental Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula; and there are two autonomous Portuguese territories: the Madeira island chain, which sits close to the Spanish Canary Islands, and the Azores archipelago, which sits deep inside the Atlantic – almost halfway between Europe and North America. Each of these three territorial units holds territorial waters as well as exclusive economic zones, but the story we will focus on are the autonomous units.
Portugal’s territorial waters extend in a belt of 22.2 kilometres from its coastal baseline. That goes for continental Portugal, as well as its two autonomous units. Everything within this belt of water is sovereign territory of Portugal, including the airspace above and the seabed below. Foreign vessels can still pass through it, but they are subject to certain restrictions as predetermined by Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on innocent passage.
Beyond territorial waters is the exclusive economic zone, which extends 370.4 kilometres beyond the coastal baseline of a state. An exclusive economic zone allows a country to claim exclusive rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources. The main difference between the territorial sea and the exclusive economic zone is that the former stipulates full sovereignty over the waters, while the latter refers to special rights below the surface of the sea. In practical terms that means the surface water remains part of international waters, but Portugal retains the exclusive right to exploit or license the natural resources within the exclusive economic zone, this includes fishing, mining, drilling, etc. This is what makes strategically placed islands such valuable tools. It’s the reason why Argentina wants the Falkland Islands, or why Japan is claiming a few rocks in the East China Sea, or why Beijing is artificially constructing islands in the South China Sea. A strategically placed island can make all the difference.
In the case of Portugal, its two autonomous archipelagos provide it with an enormous exclusive economic zone. The Azores exclusive economic zone is 953,667 square kilometres, while the Madeira exclusive economic zone is 446,108 square kilometres. In total, Portugal’s exclusive economic zone ranks as 4th-largest in the EU and the 21st-largest worldwide. That is a lot of territory for a nation of 10 million. But Lisbon isn’t done yet. According to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, a state can claim part of the continental shelf adjacent to its territory. For reference, the continental shelf is basically the geographic portion of a continent that is submerged under an area of relevantly shallow water. The Law of the Sea limits the claimable part of the continental shelf to 648 kilometres beyond the coastal baseline. Within the extended continental shelf, a state has exclusive rights to the mineral resources and other non-living resources on the ocean floor, but it doesn’t have exclusive rights to resources in the water. So, mining and drilling is an exclusive purview, while fishing is accessible to everyone.
What makes this whole story possible is the divergent physiography of the Atlantic seabed. The Atlantic region of Northern Europe, corresponding to the North Sea, is generally low in depth while its geological continental shelves are broad. This makes it extremely difficult to stake a claim beyond the exclusive economic zone. Meanwhile, the continental shelf adjacent to Portugal is mostly narrow, with continental slopes and submarine canyons emptying into vast abyssal plains. Here the submerged geographic boundaries are easier to map. It’s this advantage that allows Portugal to claim an area totalling over 2.1 million square kilometres as part of its extended continental shelf. Although the legal process is still ongoing, if the Portuguese claim is validated, it would more than double the country’s territory to 3,877,408 square kilometres. When calculating its maritime area, Portugal would instantly become one of the largest countries in the world, though only 3 per cent of it would be land.
Return to the Sea
So, what is all this about? Why is this happening now? The answer is such a fascinating one that we need to rewind the clock to 2001. At the turn of the millennium, Portugal entered a period of economic recession. The average unemployment rate hit nearly 18 per cent, while youth unemployment reached 40 per cent. The period from 2010 to 2014 was particularly bad with the state implementing austerity measures as part of its bailout programme.
Lawmakers in Lisbon tried to reassure the public, but it was to no avail. Portugal had given up its monetary policy the minute it joined the Eurozone. Without a currency of its own, the value of Portuguese services, exports and imports was decided by the European Central Bank in Frankfurt where the Germans had the most say. Portuguese lawmakers were powerless to stop the economic downturn because they had tied themselves to continental Europe while being a peripheral nation.
This was a moment of epiphany in Lisbon. To prosper, Portugal had to distance itself from continental affairs and embrace the sea once more. Being a nation with historical ties to the Atlantic Ocean, Portuguese policymakers recognized that they had to return to their seafaring roots. They had to embrace their past and recreate a modern maritime identity.
So, they drafted a new policy called the Mar-Portugal action plan, which stands for Return to the Sea in Portuguese. As part of its design, the state established a commission called the National Ocean Strategy 2013- 2020, which was tasked to develop a roadmap for Portugal to promote its maritime economy. Much of the commission’s roadmap depends on the development of technology and human expertise. However, an equally big part of the Mar-Portugal is validating its claim on the extended continental shelf.
True to its goal, the National Ocean Strategy filled a legal claim for Portugal’s extended continental shelf in May 2009. The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is still considering the claim but the deadline, which can be extended, is set for 2021. Lisbon has a strong case, and if validated the territory of Portugal would double to 3,877,408 square kilometres. Its maritime area would be 40 times larger than its terrestrial space, but that’s beyond the point.
Having such a large space to operate will enable the Portuguese state to accelerate the Mar-Portugal roadmap. By developing new facilities for communication, education, scientific research, tourism, etc. –Portugal would strengthen its soft power in the Atlantic space. Regarding physical assets, the MarPortugal plan seeks to construct new shipyards, ports, and offer services in shipbuilding, maintenance, and marine works. The potential is enormous.
Portugal holds a strategic position in the Atlantic front. Its exclusive economic zone occupies the crossroads of the main equatorial and meridian maritime shipping routes. As part of its Mar-Portugal plan, Lisbon seeks to harness the full potential of Atlantic traffic by constructing ports capable of receiving large intercontinental cargo carriers, and then integrating such freighter networks with the remainder of Europe.
Regarding mining, Portuguese policymakers are eyeing for metallic mineral resources such as zinc, copper, cobalt, gold, silver, manganese, high tech metals and rare earths, as well as non-metallic resources. Though more research studies and explorations are necessary, Lisbon believes that its maritime space holds large quantities of mineral deposits with substantial economic value. In particular, the state has its hopes pinned on the resources in the Middle-Atlantic ridge, near the Azores archipelago. Extending its legal continental shelf would place all the non-living resources on the ocean floor within the exclusive jurisdiction of Lisbon.
Sense of belonging
The second component of the Mar-Portugal action plan is soul-searching for a new modern maritime identity for Portugal. An identity that is tied to the past, but also looks to future for innovation and entrepreneurial spirit.
According to the government action plan, eventually, Lisbon will want to raise the maritime portion of its economy to 50 per cent of its total GDP. So, half of the Portuguese economy will come from the Atlantic. That’s quite a plan, but to accomplish such a drastic transition, a state needs more than just an economic roadmap, it needs an ideology. For that reason, the Mar-Portugal plan seeks to embrace and rediscover the Portuguese maritime identity. The idea is that having a large continental shelf will have a memorable, if not distinguishable, impact on the world map, and thereby change the perception of what Portuguese have of themselves as a seafaring nation. This ideological shift is fundamental. The government may believe that only by embracing its seafaring identity can it achieve its ambitious maritime policy. It’s a bold vision, and in an era where Western Europe is somewhat of an idle actor, Portugal is trying to take command of its density.
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- Lisboa – Skitterphoto via Pexels
- Elétrico 28 – Lisa Fotios via Pexels
· National Ocean Strategy 2013-2020 (Uzina Books, February 2014) https://96594c97-1436-40ba-b257-d6d0d780b25f.filesusr.com/ugd/eb00d2_e92a7c20b2154b39a8fe1ff2b8e7af15.pdf
· Progress of work in the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, September 2019) https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/clcs/50/2
· Continental Shelf Submission of Portugal (PT-ES, May 2009) https://www.un.org/Depts/los/clcs_new/submi