EU Agrees Naval Mission to Stop Libya Arms Flow

Monday, 17 February, 2020 - 18:15
Asharq Al-Awsat

EU foreign ministers agreed Monday to a naval operation to enforce an arms embargo on war-torn Libya, overcoming objections from countries who feared it may encourage new migrant flows.

The mission will be authorized to intervene to stop arms shipments, EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell said, insisting the vessels would not be "having a promenade" in the Mediterranean.

The EU hopes to have the operation, focused on the eastern part of the Libyan coast, up and running by the end of March, Borrell said, though many details -- including the rules of engagement for naval units -- are yet to be worked out.

The conflict in the turbulent North African state was on the agenda for EU ministers meeting in Brussels, but Borrell had played down hopes of an agreement over objections from Austria and Hungary.

Military commanders will propose many of the operational details, including the number of ships and the exact geographical scope, for EU foreign ministers to approve at their next meeting on March 23.

The EU hopes the new mission -- which replaces Operation Sophia, set up in 2015 to fight people smuggling across the Mediterranean at the height of Europe's migrant crisis -- will be up and running by the end of March.

Austria had led opposition to reviving Operation Sophia with ships to enforce the embargo, fearing it could reactivate a rescue fleet that would end up ferrying migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Hungary, whose right-wing populist government has taken a tough anti-immigration stance, is understood to have supported Austria's objections.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg insisted the new mission was quite different from Sophia.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said there had been a long discussion about whether a naval element was needed but finally it was agreed it was "necessary to get a complete picture".

"But it will be only in the eastern Mediterranean, where the weapons routes run," Maas said, not near the current central Mediterranean migration routes.

Crucial to winning over skeptics like Austria was a provision that if the ships are deemed to be creating a "pull factor" -- encouraging migrants to take to the sea in the hopes of being rescued and taken to Europe -- the maritime part of the operation will be halted.

Borrell said that precise details of who would decide on this were still to be agreed, but it would likely be foreign ministers acting on the advice of military commanders.

Borrell said he hoped the EU operation could be patrolling by the end of March. At first, it would operate in international, not Libyan, waters. Borrell also said the EU could not be expected to patrol the Egypt-Libya land border, through which artillery is still being delivered.

“It would be very difficult for us to act between two sovereign countries,” he told reporters.

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