28th Sep 2023

EU 'exploring' anti-migrant naval blockade

  • Von der Leyen (l): 'I support exploring options to expand existing naval missions in the Mediterranean or to work on new ones' (Photo: European Commission)
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The European Commission won't rule out discussing a naval blockade to stop migrants and refugees from fleeing North African countries, such as Tunisia.

"We have expressed the support to explore these possibilities," a European Commission spokesperson told reporters Monday (18 September) when asked whether it would rule out such talks.

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The spokesperson declined to offer any details. But her comments come after European Commission president von der Leyen made similar referenceson the Italian island of Lampedusa last weekend.

"I support exploring options to expand existing naval missions in the Mediterranean or to work on new ones," she said, while seated next to Italy's far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.

Meloni has been pressing for an EU naval blockade as part of a campaign to turn back people leaving on boats on the Mediterranean Sea, primarily towards Italy, but also to Spain, and to a lesser degree, Malta.

Human-rights lawyers and academics have poured cold water on such plans, noting authorities are obliged to abide by international human-rights law, even if people are intercepted on high seas.

This follows a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2012 that condemned Italy for having intercepted at sea and then returned to Libya a group of 200 people.

But Meloni, seated alongside von der Leyen, repeated her appeal once again, claiming past EU naval missions such as one called Sophia acted as a lure for people to take to the seas on rickety boats due to rescues.

The core mandate of the Italian-led Sophia operation was to identify, capture, and dispose of vessels used by migrant smugglers or traffickers. It also saved some 45,000 people.

However, Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, has in the past debunked the idea that it created to a pull factor for people.

Despite the fact the EU mission saved tens of thousands, there was a dramatic decrease in the number of migrant Mediterranean crossings during Sophia's operational years from 2015 to 2019.

Studies have also shown that weather and political instability, in Libya for instance, are among the primary drivers for departures, rather than EU activity.

EU states upset with Tunisia agreement

Borrell is also reportedly, along with some member states, unhappy with an agreement made between the European Commission and Tunisia on 16 July.

The memorandum of understanding, a non-binding agreement, had promised to disburse some €105m to further boost Tunisia's border security.

But reports are emerging, including from the Italian daily La Stampa and the UK-based Guardian newspaper, of a letter sent by Borrell on 7 September to Olivér Várhelyi, the European commissioner for neighbouring countries.

The letter, cited in both media outlets, quotes Borrell as accusing the European Commission of flaunting procedural rules on its agreement with Tunisia.

It further added that the deal cannot be "considered a valid template for future agreements".

The deal was hammered out over the summer and signed by Várhelyi in Tunis on 16 July alongside Meloni, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, and von der Leyen.

The letter follows other German media reports in August of at least a dozen member states, including Germany, having complained of being sidelined in the lead-up to the signing of the memorandum.

Pressed on the issue, European Commission deputy spokesperson, Dana Spinant, said on Monday that all procedural steps had been followed and that the council, representing member states, had been looped in from the beginning since April.

"We want to be able to respond more rapidly to an evolving situation, the tight the time, the timing can be a bit squeezed and the timetable can be a bit shorter than perhaps certain member states would, would have wished," she said.

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