After intense debate, EU foreign minister in Brussels agreed to launch a new mission to enforce the weapons embargo against Libya. It will, as agreed at the Libya peace conference in Berlin this January, form one pillar of the EU’s overall strategy towards stabilizing the north African country. Austria had initially attempted to block the move, fearing that a renewed maritime mission would encourage yet more migrants to across the Mediterranean.
Painstaking diplomatic progress
After meeting his European counterparts, German Foreign Minster Heiko Maas announced that a positive decision had been reached, adding that the new Libya mission would entail a “maritime component.” The EU, in other words, will dispatch navel vessels.
Operation Sophia was suspended last year over Italy’s protests that EU vessels were rescuing migrants in distress at sea, and allowing them disembark at Italian ports. And more recently, Austria’s government opposed the mission being restarted by arguing that sending EU ships along the Libyan coast would lead to a rise in Europe-bound migrants. German foreign minster Mass therefore stressed the new mission will see EU ships dispatched only to the eastern Mediterranean and thus far away from the sea routes used by migrants. But with arms smugglers seeking to evade EU observers, it is unlikely European vessels will limit themselves to patrolling only this region.
In Brussels, Maas reiterated that relaunching the EU mission was a step towards fulfilling the Berlin agreement which envisions separating the warring parties in Libya, and ensuring that their respective international allies stop supplying arms. Last Sunday, when the Munich Security Conference was winding down, the countries involved in the Libyan conflict again agreed to honor the arms embargo – though it is unclear how genuine this pledge really was.
Just a few days after the Berlin summit in January ended, for instance, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres informed the world that the ceasefire had been broken and that arms deliveries had once again commenced.
How much influence does the EU have?
After Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011, regional militias armed themselves with weapons from Gaddafi’s military. With the outbreak of civil war in 2014, arms imports to the country increased significantly. And since last year, a bloody proxy war has erupted on Libyan soil. Rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar ・ supported through arms deliveries from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan and Russia ・ is pitted against the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarra, which is recognized by the UN and EU, and receives Turkish weapons. Arms deliveries, in short, are reaching war-torn Libya by sea, land and air.
EU diplomat-in-chief Josep Borrell said negotiations over the new EU mission had been intense, yet ultimately enough EU states had volunteered to send marine vessels. Borrell said “there will be no shortage” of ships, adding that when ever a EU frigate discovers arms smugglers, it will be able to stop them. He admitted, however, that this will not be walk in the park. Borrell could not specify how many Libya-bound arms actually arrive in the country by sea, and said “we are doing what we can, but we cannot station troops along the Egyptian-Libyan border.”
The EU’s areal surveillance operation will only gather intelligence, while it’s maritime mission will amount to little more than a symbolic gesture. To actually stop all arms deliveries to Libya, the EU would have to dispatch ground troops and fully control the country’s airspace using fighters jets – neither of which the EU is able to do.
UN envoy calls arms embargo a joke
UN deputy special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams, said the “arms embargo has become a joke. We all really need to step up here. It痴 complicated because there are violations by land, sea and air, but it needs to be monitored and there needs to be accountability.” German foreign minister Heiko Maas, too, conceded that the embargo had been beached numerous times in the past weeks.
Liberal MEPs have reported over 100 such breaches in recent times, and critique that the foreign minsters’ agreement does not go far enough. Nicola Beer, an MEP with the free-market FDP, said foreign minsters’ had wasted an opportunity to “agree sanctions that send a clear message to Turkey, Russia or the United Arab Emirates.” In her view, agreeing on a EU military mission without also imposing sanctions will not suffice to pacify Libya and do nothing to reduce the flow of Europe-bound migrants.
Green MEPs, in turn, have complained that the mission is not tailored to the rescue of migrants at sea. MEP Erik Marquardt said that “the vessels should be where people in distress are.” Adding that for a year EU governments had been preventing migrants from being rescued, while simultaneously helping Libyan militias cut off migration routes.
In a recent study, Markus Keim and Rene Schulz of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) write that “there is no easy option for the EU that requires little work and guarantees success in enforce the existing arms embargo. All options have significant political, financial and military costs.” They argue that the EU lacks the military means to make this happen, and that economic sanctions would be key. But as Italy and France each support opposing sides of the conflict, the chances of success are rather slim.
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