On the 17th of February the EU Council of Foreign Ministers agreed to revamp the European Union Naval Force-Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED), replacing its Operation Sophia with a new naval mission. Established in 2015 to disrupt human smuggling networks off the coasts of Libya, Operation Sophia was also tasked with the monitoring of the arms embargo on Libya.
The maritime component of the mission has been inactive since last year, due to conflicting views among European partners over its effectiveness in reducing migration flows. However, the intensifying conflict in Libya pushed the EU to reconsider its decision, as a way to salvage the conclusions of the Berlin Conference. The new mission, known as Operation EU Active Surveillance, is expected to be ready by the end of March 2020 and would include ships, aircraft and satellites, but its rules of engagement have still to be agreed by member-States.
The new mission would be deployed in international waters off eastern Libya, moving naval assets away from the Central Mediterranean Route, where migration flows have been constant until Italy and the EU adopted policies of externalisation that included support to the Libyan coastguard. The new approach responds to the requests from several EU members (including Austria and Italy) to exclude any humanitarian concern, focusing exclusively on the military operations. This seems confirmed by the provision that allows for the withdrawal of maritime assets in case of ‘pull-factor’ effects on migrants trying to flee Libya.
The new mission’s goal would be the enforcement of the arms embargo on Libya, frequently violated by foreign actors such as Turkey and United Arab Emirates (UAE), among others. Since the resumption of hostilities in Libya last year, Ankara has extended its military support to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, shipping weapons, armoured personnel carriers and military equipment. For this reason, the Turkish government has criticised the establishment of the new EU mission, that has a limited mandate on the air transfers of military equipment, weapons and mercenaries to conflict parties. Furthermore, the mission clearly lacks a multidimensional approach that takes into consideration Libya’s porous borders with neighbouring countries involved in the civil war, as recognised by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joseph Borrell.
For these reasons, the Operation EU Active Surveillance seems unable to prevent further breaches of the arms embargo. Considering increasing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean over the controversial maritime agreement between the GNA and Turkey, the new mission also seems to serve wider geopolitical purposes that go well beyond Libya, establishing a European presence in a sensitive area and reassuring some EU member States that oppose Turkey’s proactive and uncoordinated policies in the East Med.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region