Monday

6th Apr 2020

Austria and Hungary derail EU naval plan on Libya arms

  • EU plans to enforce the arms-embargo on Libya now hang in the balance (Photo: EEAS)

Austria and Hungary have for the moment derailed EU plans to tackle breaches of the UN arms embargo off the Libyan coast, over objections to possible migrant rescues.

Also known as Operation Irini, the proposal entails deploying European warships in the Mediterranean as part of a broader effort to stop arms from reaching the country.

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Ambassadors across all 27 EU states met on Wednesday (18 March) in Brussels to discuss Irene, set to be launched start of April, but failed to come to any agreement.

An Austrian spokesperson said they took issue on procedures when it comes to withdrawing naval assets, should the operation lure migrants fleeing Libya and seeking to be rescued.

An EU diplomat made similar comments, saying the Austrian position had also been shared by Hungary.

"Austria and Hungary basically want a veto to unilaterally stop the operation, should it rescue a refugee boat in distress, and then end the deployment of naval assets," said the diplomat, who asked not to be named.

A second EU diplomat said both countries had also wanted clearer time stamps on when to review and reassess the mission's mandate.

"It was discussed and the decision was postponed, dropped, and they couldn't agree on Operation Irene," said the source, who also asked not to be named.

The plan now is to continue talks on Friday in the hopes of reaching some sort of compromise ahead of the foreign affairs council Monday next week.

But those prospects appear dim in light to the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing the foreign affairs ministers to hold their session over teleconference.

Irene was first announced mid-February, following an outbreak of fighting in Libya and international appeals to curtail the flow of weapons amid stalled attempts for a ceasefire.

Josep Borrell, the EU's chief diplomat, had in February attempted to scupper any objections (initially voiced by Italy and Austria) surrounding Irene by announcing naval assets would be pulled in case they lured migrants into seeking help.

"This new operation will have as a goal to implement the arms embargo imposed by the UN Security Council," he also said.

Irene replaces Operation Sophia, whose main objective was to prevent human trafficking, but was pulled when Italy's then far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini complained about migrant rescues.

According to an internal EU document released by Statewatch, there is no clear evidence EU naval assets at sea constitute a pull factor.

"It must be noted that, the migratory flow through the central Mediterranean substantially decreased between 2016 and 2019, while Operation Sophia's naval assets were still fully deployed," says the report.

EU set for new Libya naval mission

Foreign ministers reached a political agreement to create a new EU naval force to replace Operation Sophia. It aims to enforce an UN arms embargo on Libya and operate in area where migrants do not take boats.

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