Tuesday

6th Jun 2023

Opinion

Sophia in limbo: political games limit sea rescues

  • Germany's frigate, the Schleswig-Holstein, on active duty on Operation Sophia. The mission comes to an end at the end of this month (Photo: EEAS)

There are only few weeks left until the mandate of the EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean, EUNAVFOR Med [Operation Sophia], will expire on 31 March.

Nevertheless, Germany already decided in January to stop contributing vessels to the mission: its frigate Augsburg left in February.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

As well as structural problems (the German navy currently lacks functioning vessels), the German minister of defence delivered another, quite extraordinary explanation: that since July 2018, the Italian command of Operation Sophia has sent the German vessel (and all the other ones) on routes where there was nothing to do, as these were far off any smuggling or trafficking areas.

And, indeed, the mission which has rescued about 49,000 people so far has picked up only 106 refugees since July 2018.

What an interesting coincidence - as the summer of 2018 is exactly the starting point for all the obstructions by Italy's minister of interior, Matteo Salvini, regarding both this mission and other actors involved in rescues in the Mediterranean.

Originally, the mission was pushed for - by the Italians - in 2015, and is currently led by an Italian admiral.

Salvini is not pleased with the mission's rescue efforts of migrants in the Mediterranean and disembarking them, by-and-large, at Italian ports.

Rescuing at sea is not part of the mission's mandate, but an obligation by international law.

Operation Sophia's mandate actually focuses on efforts to disrupt human smuggling and trafficking networks.

Another task has been the training of the Libyan coast guards.

Salvini has pressured the EU to draw up a new operational plan in accordance with his demand that the mission stops transferring migrants to Italian harbours. Otherwise, he will push for its termination.

In 2014, when Italy's so far most effective rescue mission in the Mediterranean, Mare Nostrum, was still operational, only four out of every 1,000 attempts to cross the sea were fatal.

In 2018, after the capacities for rescue were reduced following pressure from the Italian government on both NGO rescue ships as well as Operation Sophia, and even their own coast guard, fatalities increased to 24 deaths per 1,000 attempts to cross.

By the end of December, member states were only able to find a compromise to prolong the mission for three months, using a rather less-complicated legal move (called a "technical roll-over") to have more time to discuss.

But it seems rather naive to think that Salvini and his League will agree to a compromise in 2019 - the year where his party and other nationalists want to succeed at the European elections on an anti-migration platform.

Yet, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and Federica Mogherini have lately intensified their talks to prolong the mission.

In a cynical tweet, the EEAS's deputy head of strategic communication, claimed the importance of the mission and that the problem with disembarkation was actually only a limited issue as only 106 people have been rescued since July 2018.

How many have drowned?

But should a mission, which is not fulfilling its mandate, be kept only as a political symbol?

How can Operation Sophia interfere with any smuggling activities if its ships are sent away from any smuggling routes?

Recently leaked internal documents on Operation Sophia have increased the doubts about the effectiveness of it altogether.

The leak not only illustrated terrible unintended consequences of claimed successes, but it has also been shown that some of the Libyan coast guard trainees of the mission were even sanctioned by the UN "for smuggling and human rights violations".

The whole debate on Operation Sophia should teach member states that missions under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU should not be used as political symbols and for highly-contested internal policy issues such as migration.

For populists all over Europe, Operation Sophia has been a great asset for political gambling.

In contrast, instruments such as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) or Europol are less affected by political quarrels in their daily operational tasks. To rescue people and prevent smuggling should anyway be dealt with by national coast guards and national police.

But without a European consensus on migration as well as a common asylum procedure including a distribution mechanism for those entitled to protection, there will not be any sustainable solution for the situation in the Mediterranean.

Thus there is the need for a short and medium-term solution: those member states that are still willing to save lives in the Mediterranean should set up a new Mare Nostrum rescue mission (eg, Spain, France, Portugal and Germany).

We need a clear humanitarian solution as long as people are drowning in the sea or being traumatised or killed in Libyan detention centres.

It is shameful for Europe to ignore the humanitarian plight of these people.

Author bio

Tobias Pietz is deputy head of the analysis division of Berlin-based Center for International Peace Operations.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

What Salvini teaches us about Operation Sophia

It seems as if the EU and some member states are trying to 'sell' European external action in Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary as a key to solving internal issues – and thus pulling these missions into today's populist debates.

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.

The EU needs to foster tech — not just regulate it

The EU's ambition to be a digital superpower stands in stark contrast to the US — but the bigger problem is that it remains far better at regulation than innovation, despite decades of hand-wringing over Europe's technology gap.

Latest News

  1. Final steps for EU's due diligence on supply chains law
  2. Top EU court rules Poland's court reforms 'infringe law'
  3. Sweden's far-right is most anti-Green Deal party in EU
  4. Strengthening recovery, resilience and democracy in regions, cities and villages
  5. Why Hungary cannot be permitted to hold EU presidency
  6. Subcontracting rules allow firms to bypass EU labour rights
  7. Asylum and SLAPP positions in focus This WEEK
  8. Spanish PM to delay EU presidency speech due to snap election

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  2. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  3. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics
  6. EFBWWEFBWW calls for the EC to stop exploitation in subcontracting chains

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. InformaConnecting Expert Industry-Leaders, Top Suppliers, and Inquiring Buyers all in one space - visit Battery Show Europe.
  2. EFBWWEFBWW and FIEC do not agree to any exemptions to mandatory prior notifications in construction
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us