Thursday

13th May 2021

EU navies prepare to start work in Libyan waters

  • The Sophia operation was launched last year but has so far lacked permission to enter Libyan zones (Photo: eunavfor)

The EU is to make plans for posting security experts to Libya and moving its naval operation into Libyan waters, following initial talks with the country’s new government.

EU foreign ministers decided to go ahead after speaking in Brussels via video link with new Libyan prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj on Monday (18 April).

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  • Sophia saved more than 13,000 people in the past six months, Mogherini said (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

They said in a joint statement that EU security experts would help Libyan authorities on “counter-terrorism, border management, countering irregular migration and smuggling of migrants and trafficking of human beings”.

They said the naval operation in the Mediterranean, called Sophia, which had so far been limited to international zones, could move into Libyan waters to help with “capacity building for the Libyan coastguard”.

The EU also agreed to spend €100 million on humanitarian initiatives, such as restoring water and electricity to war-damaged towns.

The statement recognised that Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, formed last week, does not have full control of Libyan territory.

It urged “existing militias and armed groups to respect its authority” .

It said EU states, in line with a UN decision, would cease “official contact” with all “parallel institutions”. It also said it might blacklist further individuals “who threaten the peace, stability or security in Libya, or who undermine its political transition”.

Europe’s foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini said the new EU deployments were unlikely before July - its internal deadline for a review of Sophia’s mandate.

She noted that Sarraj had mentioned migration and counter-terrorism as just two among many of the new government’s priorities.

Huge numbers

But she said he had voiced concern on the “huge number of migrants and refugees” that have come to Libya following the EU’s closure of the Western Balkan migration corridor.

She said one of the options was for Sophia to start work on interception and rescues of migrants in Libyan waters. She said it could also start to destroy migrant boats on shore or train the Libyan coast guard to destroy them.

Mogherini said she was “proud” of Sophia’s work to date, saying that it in the past six months it had arrested 68 suspected people smugglers, “neutralised” 104 vessels, and rescued over 13,000 people, including 800 children.

She spoke on the one-year anniversary of a mass drowning in the Mediterranean, but also amid as-yet uncorroborated reports of another large-scale sea tragedy.

Speaking after the Sarraj video conference, French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the creation of the GNA was itself a big step.

“We couldn’t have imagined that a few weeks ago,” he said.

He described Sarraj as a “brave” man who “wants to help his country”. He also said it was important for both Libya and the EU to halt people smuggling and arms and drugs trafficking.

Michael Fallon, the British defence minister, said that the spread of the jihadist group Islamic State “along the Libyan coastline … is a threat to us in Europe”.

Speaking last weekend at the Globsec security conference in Bratislava, Nato deputy head Alexander Vershbow said the alliance could help Sophia on maritime surveillance if it was asked.

But he added: “The EU seems to think it has things covered, at least for now.”

Nato is already helping Greek and Turkish coastguards to spot migrant boats in the Aegean.

Vershbow said the mission was “not yet fully deployed”, but it helped last week to identify “two or three dozen illegal smuggling vessels”.

Criticism

The EU security mission is to be based on a 2013 EU initiative known as Eubam Libya, whereby 100 or so police and military experts were posted to Libya. Eubam was scaled back and eventually moved to Tunisia because of deteriorating security in Tripoli.

The Sophia mission became fully operational in July last year. It consists of four warships from Italy, Germany, and the UK, as well as two planes and three helicopters.

Libya has 6,000km of land borders, which are in effect controlled by stateless Toubou and Tuareg tribes, many of whom profit from smuggling.

Italian security chiefs have in the past criticised Sophia.

Vincenzo Camporini, Italy’s chief of defence from 2008 to 2011, told EUobserver last year the closer the operation moved to Libya, the more migrants it would be forced to rescue.

“In essence, it’s helping the smuggling operation because it provides people with more means to reach their desired objective, which is to land in Europe,” he said.

Luigi Binelli Mantelli, Italy’s defence chief from 2013 to 2015, told EUobserver in March that Libyan authorities had a long way to go to establish control.

“It’s a problem of more than 100 tribes, each one with its own interests in human trafficking, oil smuggling, arms, and drugs,” he said.

“People say we should talk with this or that government, but they [Libyan authorities] have no power to control the tribes.”

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