27th Feb 2024


EU's Red Sea mission comes at a price — Somali pirates are back

  • The EU's Atalanta mission against hijacking in action (Photo: German navy)
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The European Union has the ambition be a global maritime security provider as emphasized in the October 2023 maritime security strategy. It is consequential that the member states have agreed on a new maritime security operation, called Aspis, to respond to the ongoing missile and drone attacks on merchant vessels by the Houthis in the Red Sea and Western Indian Ocean.

These attacks have implied significant costs for maritime trade and carry the danger of a major environmental disaster in the region, with worst case scenarios pointing to a full closure of this trade route with dramatic consequences for the regional and global economies.

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The new operation Aspis draws on a recent UN Security Council mandate and will further enhance the air defense already put in place by the US-led operation Prosperity Guardian.

The operation sends a strong signal that the EU does not tolerate politically motivated disruptions of freedom of navigation. This is important to live up to the global maritime security ambitions, yet it will not stop the Houthis from launching attacks in the short term, as analysts have highlighted.

The attention given to Houthi attacks has come at a price. Decision-makers in Brussels have not yet noted that another problem in this region has returned. The pirates of Somalia are also back in action. The current crisis presented a window of opportunity for pirates to launch a series of attacks.

On 5 January 2024, the MV Lila Norfolk, flagged in Liberia, was captured by pirates. The crew sought refuge in a secure room, known as citadel, and the naval forces of India could recapture the vessel. Three weeks earlier, on 14 December, a Malta flagged vessel, the MV Ruen, was boarded by pirates. The ship and its crew are held hostage on Somalia's shore since, with ransom negotiations ongoing.

In November pirates hijacked the Liberian-flagged Central Park off the Yemeni coast, which was recaptured by the United States navy. Earlier in the month, pirates also hijacked fishing vessels for ransom, which might be used as 'motherships' in further attacks. Reports suggest that the Somali extremist group Al Shabab supports and benefits from these operations.

The series of these attacks indicate that pirates attempt to return to their dangerous business that caused havoc on world trade and severely damaged regional sustainable development between 2008 and 2012.

Ending the Somali piracy business in 2012 and successfully suppressing them after has been one of the key successes of the EU's maritime security ambitions. That was the main reason for continuing the EU's counter-piracy operation, EUNAVFOR Atalanta and investing in capacity building in the region.

EU global reputation at stake

This legacy and reputation of the EU is now being challenged. Decision-makers in Brussels must urgently rethink how they can ensure that pirates will not continue to seize the current opportunity and launch further attacks.

It is often believed that the counter-piracy structures established between 2008 and 2012 are still intact. While this is true on paper, in practice these structures have fully eroded, and regional capacity building has not put regional states — many of which are small island developing countries — in the position to cope with the situation on their own.

Atlanta currently operates with a single surface vessel. The UN Security Council mandate for counter-piracy has expired. The trust fund providing the resources for piracy prosecutions has been closed. The coordination mechanism, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia transformed into a dysfunctional group which has not at all responded to the current crisis. Only the information sharing system provided by the EU and United Kingdom through regional centers is still in place.

The sole reason that pirates had only limited success over the past weeks is that India has increased its naval presence and now operates with 12 vessels in the region. Preventing the full return of piracy is, however, a global responsibility and the EU needs to live up to its long-term commitment in the region.

A series of measures are needed.

The EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy should issue a statement signaling the EU's awareness and commitment, calling for a release of the MV Ruen and encouraging the regional states to do what is in their capacities.

Military planners should ensure that there are synergies between the operations Atalanta and Aspis, so they can mutually support each other.

The EU is about to roll out a new capacity building project for the region, called Safe Seas Africa, which should incorporate recent developments. The project needs to consider an emergency fund which provides resources for regional piracy prosecutions, should the situation arise. It also needs to further empower the regional maritime security architecture (known as MASE) to closely monitor the situation off Somalia.

Author bio

Christian Bueger is professor of international relations at the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of Understanding Maritime Security (Oxford University Press).


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

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