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New European Naval Operation Set to Monitor Arms Embargo in Libya

by Melissa Rossi*

As a follow-up to the Berlin Conference commitments on Libya, the European Union (EU) Foreign Affairs Council agreed, on 17 February, to instate a renewed naval operation in the Eastern Mediterranean that would replace the EU´s current Operation Sophia. The main goal of this new naval mission, however, will no longer be that of disrupting human smuggling and trafficking activities, but rather that of implementing the arms embargo in Libya as mandated by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 1970 (2011). According to EU High Representative and Vice President (HRVP) Josep Borrell, ‘The operation will comprise aerial, satellite and maritime assets.’ 

This agreement was reached after a round of tough negotiations between EU members. In particular, Austria, a landlocked EU state, threatened to block the naval operation unless it was guaranteed that the new mission would not act as a “pull factor” for migrants trying to reach the EU from Libya. It is important to note that there is no data proving this fear. As stated by the European External Action Service (EEAS) in a non-paper on EU NAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, on 12 February, migrant flows decreased considerably from 2016 to 2019—years in which Sophia’s naval assets were operating off the entire length of the Libyan coast.

In order to reassure Austria — the EU requires the approval of all 27 Member States in order to launch the operation — EU members acquiesced. As such, HRVP Borrell guaranteed that the new operation would be ‘monitored carefully and reported on regularly by the Operation Commander’ and if so-called pull-factor cases are proven then ‘maritime assets will be withdrawn from the relevant areas.’

This renewed securitization approach to EU foreign policy speaks loud and clear about the political climate in Brussels, held hostage by strong anti-EU and anti-migrant forces. The specific details of the new operation will be agreed upon during the next Foreign Affairs Council meeting in March. Presently, one thing is certain: the UN arms embargo in Libya has been ineffective mainly due to the considerable level of external interference in the Libyan conflict. Indeed, the more opposing sides are fuelled by foreign weapons and military personnel, the greater the risk of large numbers of civilian casualties and further extension of the conflict in time, in a possible Syrian-like quagmire scenario.

This more concrete decision of the Foreign Affairs Council comes after several attempts to agree on a ceasefire and on an arms embargo this year. Eastern forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar continue their military push for the overthrow of the UN-backed Tripoli government in the western part of the country. Haftar counts on the support of Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side of the conflict, the internationally recognised government of Tripoli, headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, is supported by the UN, Turkey and Italy.  It is also important to note that the stakes are high in Libya not only due to its geographic location at the doorsteps of the EU, but also because it holds some of the world’s largest oil reserves. Just to illustrate its economic importance to countries such as Italy, the Greenstream pipeline that connects Libya’s Wafa and Bahr Essalam fields to Sicily supplies about 8% of Italian gas.

*Melissa Rossi is an EGIC fellow from the Brazilian Naval War College in Rio de Janeiro

28 February 2020

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