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28th Feb 2024

Spanish abstention clears way for EU naval mission in Red Sea

  • Western naval build-up comes amid fear of regional escalation (Photo: consilium.eu)
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EU countries have provisionally agreed to launch a Red Sea naval mission alongside the US after Spain showed it wouldn't stand in the way.

"There seems to be a large degree of consensus among member states on the need to act quickly and pragmatically," an EU diplomat said on Wednesday (17 January), following ambassadors' talks in Brussels on Tuesday.

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"Spain didn't take the floor at all [in Tuesday's EU Council meeting]. Seems they're aiming at a constructive abstention," they said.

A second EU diplomat said there was "broad support for the mission ... very strong support", but that some Nordic states were still assessing details.

The preferred option was a mission with a wide area of operations, stretching from the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz to the Red Sea, diplomats said.

The EU mission, which is to contain at least three frigates, will be tasked with accompanying merchant vessels, preventing attacks by Houthi fighters, and doing surveillance.

It will be bolted on to an existing EU maritime-surveillance mission based in the UAE and called Agenor.

It will also cooperate closely with a US-led naval coalition called Prosperity Guardian, which launched air strikes on Houthi bases last week.

The Houthi rebel group in Yemen has been harassing merchant ships with drones, missiles, and small boats for two months.

They were "skilled navigators" who were "good at escaping detection" and who've showed their prowess by striking ships quite far out at sea, said Edmund Fitton-Brown, the UK's former ambassador to Yemen.

They were also "cruel ... gat-chewers" who "love to fight" and who stood to win prestige and money by wreaking havoc on world trade routes in the name of solidarity with Gaza, Fitton-Brown told EUobserver.

Spanish defence minister Margarita Robles said last Friday that Spain wouldn't take part in the EU operation "out of a sense of responsibility and commitment to peace".

Italy, France, and Spain also declined to sign a statement backing last week's US airstrikes, amid delicate optics on joining what some Arabs and Muslims see as a pro-Israeli coalition.

And Qatar voiced concern that a Western naval build-up could be counterproductive.

"We need to address the central issue, which is Gaza in order to get everything else defused ... if we are just focusing on the symptoms and not treating the real issues, [any Red Sea solutions] will be temporary," Qatar's prime minister, sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Tuesday.

The US airstrikes against the Houthis, who were backed by Iran, created "a high risk of further escalation and further expansion" of the Gaza conflict, he added.

But the EU foreign service believes Europe has a softer image than the US in the region.

This was due to Europe's "history of a balanced and careful approach [in Middle East diplomacy] with values that should establish a safer environment to de-escalate", the EU said in its Red Sea mission proposal.

EU military advisors in Brussels will flesh out the initial plan before talks by foreign ministers on 22 January and with a view to launching the operation by March.

Italy keen

"The idea is to have a European mission that can be operational as soon as possible," Italian foreign minister Antonio Tajani said in Rome on Wednesday.

"Then, certainly, decisions [on who sends warships] will be made, but the political decision for us must be taken by next Monday," he said.

The initial EU blueprint spoke of "at least three anti-air destroyers or frigates with multi-mission capabilities for at least one year", as well as "airborne early-warning capabilities", and "satellite support".

"The assets should be able to protect the merchant vessels against multi-domain attacks", including "ballistic but also anti-ship cruise missiles, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Unmanned Surface Vehicles, and small boats", it said.

"In addition, it [the EU task force] should include a small carrier/LHA [landing helicopter assault] with air, amphibious, and special-forces capabilities to strike when and if possible the Houthi bases or to simply exercise deterrence," Luigi Binelli-Mantelli, a retired admiral who led Italy's armed forces until 2015, also previously told this website.

France, Germany, and Italy are expected to spearhead the EU mission.

Italy already has a frigate, the Virginio Fasan, in the area under national command, equipped with rapid-fire guns and guided ammunition cannons.

France also has a frigate, the Languedoc, in the Red Sea, which shot down Houthi drones using surface-to-air-missiles in December.

And Germany is to send a frigate called the F-124 Gessen to the region in February, according to German media.

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