21st Mar 2023


European navies must stay on Suez trade routes, EU diplomats warn

  • Atalanta's official job is to protect world shipping from pirates (Photo: German navy)
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EU diplomats want European navies to stay in the volatile Gulf of Aden region for hard geopolitical reasons as well as to improve local security.

The EU's flagship naval operation, Atalanta, and two small onshore security-training missions, EUCAP Somalia and EUTM Somalia, should stay in place until at least 2025, the EU foreign service said in an internal report dated late September, and seen by EUobserver on Monday (3 October).

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Atalana's official job is to protect cargo ships on the Suez Canal route from Somalian pirates, as well as to chase Kenyan drug-smuggling boats and Yemeni arms traffickers.

But amid the Russia war and heightened Western tensions with China, Atalanta also had bigger fish to fry, the EU report showed.

"Russia's military aggression in Ukraine and the subsequent efforts to identify alternative sources of energy supply, especially in the Liquefied Natural Gas, has further increased the significance of securing the shipping routes from the Gulf region through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to Europe," it said.

The "current geopolitical context" had "reconfirmed the importance of securing the critical shipping lanes," it added.

The EU is aiming to create its own military to act alongside Nato and the US in future.

And Atalanta had also "showcased" the "EU's ability to enforce a rules-based order in the Western Indian Ocean", the EU foreign service said.

Atalanta is a success story because there's been no serious pirate attack in its area of operations since 2019.

Somalian president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud also wrote to EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell in August asking for more help on "illegal [...] fishing, illicit arms smuggling and illicit charcoal trade and the possible dumping of toxic waste," the EU report said.

His letter "clearly indicated a wish for a more comprehensive EU engagement ... both on land and off shore," it added.

But for all the EU's success in policing the high seas, the security situation on the ground in Somalia and the wider region has gravely deteriorated.

"There is a risk that any lack of dissuasive posture [at sea] would immediately allow the Piracy Action Groups to resume their operations," the EU foreign service warned.

The fact 70 percent of Somalians were aged under 30 and more than half had no work created "a particular risk of young men being attracted to illegal and violent livelihoods, such as piracy, illicit trafficking of different sorts and/or to violent extremism," it said.

Russia's war on Ukraine was making matters worse by causing a food crisis, it added.

Meanwhile, the Al Shabab (AS) jihadist group, which has 10,000 fighters in "strongholds in southern and central Somalia" was on "the rise militarily, as well as socially and economically," the EU said.

It levies taxes on vast swathes of Somalian businesses, including in Mogadishu, and controls the coastline, collecting customs excise from the country's ports.

A second jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Somalia, also continues to fight from its bases in the Gollis mountains, the EU added.


Somalia had become "the regional centre of gravity of insecurity", the EU warned.

"This provides fertile soil for concerning trends, such as the spread of AS along the Swahili coast and into Ethiopia, or the turnstile of mercenaries — regional and international — circling between Libya, Chad, CAR [Central African Republic], South Sudan, and Darfur," the report said.

The EU's onshore training missions aside, China, Turkey, the UK, and the US are also investing in Mohamud.

The US has trained Somalia's most powerful unit — the 1,500-strong "Danab Special Forces" infantry battalion.

Turkey trained a 5,000-strong "Gorgor Forces" infantry brigade and 1,200-strong "Haramcad" special police force. It has also "built a big hospital in Mogadishu and is training Somali doctors", the report said.

China had donated a modest €5m of military equipment so far, the EU report noted, but it also "has a military base in Djibouti, its only one in Africa, as well as a port aimed at securing its vast economic interests in the region," it added.

"The Horn [of Africa] is an area of competing influence between regional and international actors," the EU report on Somalia noted.

But multilateral bodies, such as the African Union and UN, were failing to halt its spiral into chaos, "putting more onus on the EU and other international actors to step in", Borrell's service said.

"The United Nations is also suffering from dysfunctional multilateralism as interests clash and divisions in the UN Security Council deepen," it said, painting a bleak picture of trends in world affairs.

"Somalia ranks as one of the worst countries worldwide for women," the EU report added, in passing.

"Gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and discrimination against Somali women are widespread," it said.

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