Greece’s delay in establishing maritime spatial plans is indicative of intractable challenges that must be addressed for the country to harness the power of maritime spatial planning (MSP) as an enabler of the European Green Deal and to achieve a holistic sustainable transition.

Just before the holidays, on December 21, the European Commission announced that it had referred Greece to the Court of Justice of the European Union “for its failure to ensure the correct implementation of Directive (EU) 2014/89 on maritime spatial planning (MSP).”

Specifically, Greece should have had maritime spatial plans in place by 31 March 2021 and submitted them to the Commission by June of the same year. But despite the Commission issuing a formal notice in December 2021 and a reasoned opinion in April 2023, the plans have yet to be communicated.

To be fair, the Directive initially proved a challenge for many EU countries. By the March 31, 2021 deadline, only 12 of the 22 countries required to make plans had complied and communicated them to the Commission.

Maritime spatial plans cover countries’ territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones. In simple terms, their purpose is to coordinate human activities in the sea in order to minimize conflicts among stakeholders, maximize the benefits people receive from the ocean, and maintain healthy marine habitats.

However, underlying MSP are some complex requirements. These include implementing an ecosystems-based approach that relies on robust marine and maritime data, instituting clear policies on and strategies for the use of coastal zones (intercoastal zone management) and their adjacent seas, balancing exploitation (blue economy) with conservation (marine protection), and working closely with neighboring EU and non-EU countries on “transboundary” MSP.

The Commission noted in a 2022 stocktake report that Covid-19 had initially delayed progress and that many countries were struggling with the nature of Maritime Spatial Planning, which is “a complex and adaptive process requiring broad and intense cooperation and coordination among national ministries, agencies, coastal regions, with stakeholders and with neighboring countries.”

The implementation of MSP was also likely hindered by the fact that, although it requires engagement with all the stakeholders who use the seas, MSP awareness is low among these users. In fact, MSP is the least well-known of all the EU’s environmental policies in the Mediterranean, according to an Interreg Mediterranean report.

That said, most countries caught up and completed and communicated their plans within a reasonable amount of time after they were contacted by the Commission. The Commission adds in their stocktake that MSP remained a sticky issue for Greece, Croatia, Cyprus, Italy and Romania.

But MSP is especially crucial and challenging for Greece, a country which boasts over 13,600 km of coastline and thousands of islands, needs more robust marine and maritime data, is heavily reliant on its coasts and seas for economically advantageous but environmentally destructive activities, and has outstanding disagreements with Turkey over borders.

Regarding the demarcation of maritime zones between Greece and Turkey, Prime Minister Mitsotakis stated this past summer that he hoped they could come to an agreement over these issues, so the two countries would not be “condemned to live in a constant state of tension.”

Because MSP is not currently in place, conflicts and contradictions are increasingly coming to the fore as Greece catalyzes sustainable development and its green transition through a focus on the blue economy and new green technologies like carbon capture and offshore wind turbines and also develops a new energy strategy that is heavily reliant on its seas.

For example, Client Earth, WWF and Greenpeace announced on December 14 that they had lodged a formal complaint with the Commission, asking it to intervene in Greece’s plans for offshore oil and gas projects which threaten protected marine sites and biodiversity.

The much anticipated 9th edition of the prestigious Our Ocean Conference, which is to be held in Athens, Greece on April 15–17 at the Stavros Niarchos Center, represents an opportunity to raise awareness of MSP and tackle more intractable issues like transboundary MSP.

Staged in collaboration with the US State Department and hosted in a different country around the world each year, the conference organizers have announced more than 2160 commitments worth almost 130 billion USD and six key priorities: marine protected areas, a sustainable blue economy, the climate-ocean nexus, maritime security, sustainable fisheries, and marine pollution.

This year Greece is expected to focus on several topics relevant to MSP within this framework. These may include sustainable tourism in coastal areas and islands, green shipping, reducing microplastics and microplastics pollution, and the green transition in the Mediterranean.

The Our Oceans conference could be an important vehicle for fostering stakeholder engagement with issues of relevance to MSP. It can do so by improving the general public’s overall ocean literacy, meaning their understanding of how our oceans and seas impact on us and how we impact on our oceans and seas.

Having a public better informed about the climate-ocean nexus—and aware, for instance, that healthy oceans produce 50% of the air we breathe and are natural carbon sinks which store 50 times more CO2 than the atmosphere—will greatly aid Greek policymakers by helping stakeholders with apparently conflicting goals realize that a balanced use of the Greek seas is in their mutual interest.

Climate scientists have already highlighted the risks facing all of us and our industries if we fail to place healthy seas at the center of our policymaking and ensure that best practices are embraced by the public. This is particularly true for countries like Greece which are so heavily dependent upon them.

And while MSP is not a panacea for the delimitation of maritime zones, it is a key tool. Its plans and procedures will help Greece and other countries integrate the plethora of EU and international policies, laws, and scientific concepts that must be considered when deciding on the proper use of our seas, and also to continually monitor and reevaluate those uses.

On a macro level, Maritime Spatial Planning helps redirect the way countries and their people work through science- and data-based approaches and is a crucial link to the European Green Deal and the larger global concept of Ocean Governance—both of which are necessary if we are to use our oceans and seas in a more effective, safer and sustainable way.

This article is part of a special thematic series covering key issues related to the priorities of the 9th Our Ocean Conference, which will be hosted by Greece this year and held in Athens from April 15–17 at the Stavros Niarchos Center.