The challenges of the European Union's Operation Irini

The departure of Malt, Germany's conflict of interest or the migration crisis threaten to disrupt the naval mission to control the arms embargo on Libya
An E2C-Hawkeye aircraft flies over the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, off the eastern coast of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea

AFP/MARIO GOLDMAN  -   An E2C-Hawkeye aircraft flies over the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, off the eastern coast of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea

"The best way to deal with the challenges of the central Mediterranean, such as migratory waves, is through the stabilization of Libya. And this depends on Operation IRINI, among many other things," declared the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, at a press conference on 12 May. The EU official said that the new mission launched by Brussels to guarantee the arms embargo on Libya should become fully operational once and for all, after the innumerable challenges it has had to face since it was announced last February, just a couple of days after the Berlin Conference, where the main international powers committed themselves not to interfere in the conflict. 

But nothing could be further from the truth. In these four months, there have been continuous violations of the arms embargo, above all by Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, attended the summit in the German capital. The Eurasian nation has sent mercenaries, weapons and technical equipment from its own army to Libya to support the ranks of the Government of National Unity (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj and sponsored by the UN. In order to do so, he has used different methods: through Tunisia, a country with which he has recently strengthened cooperation in all areas - thanks to the arrival in power of President Kais Saied, and the Islamist President of Parliament Rashid Ghannouchi - by means of satellite vessels, such as the Lebanese Bana, or directly with ships of his own navy, loaded with both equipment and military personnel. It has also collaborated with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood organization to strengthen its position in the country.

Similarly, on the rival side, the National Liberation Army (LNA), led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar, there have been identified violations of the non-interference agreed in Berlin. In fact, the UN revealed in early May that Russia had sent up to 1,200 Wagner Group mercenaries to Libya to join the ranks of the LNA.

Fotografía de familia de la Conferencia de Berlín sobre Libia
PHOTO/AP - Family photo from the Berlin Conference on Libya

With this scenario, a military mission to control the movements of the powers involved in the Libyan civil war becomes essential to achieve the stability of the country, as Borrell pointed out in the intervention cited above. However, Operation Irini, which should already be fully operational, has encountered a series of obstacles in its implementation that pave the way for further violations of the arms embargo and the non-interference clause. 

The first challenge is represented by Malta, which decided to withdraw from the mission on 8 May. According to the local newspaper Malta Today, the Valletta authorities notified the European Commission that they would not commit any military assets to the operation and that they would veto any decision concerning the expenditure procedures for disembarking migrants, diverting ports or the eligibility of unmanned aircraft. The Maltese Government argued that, because of the coronavirus, they face an "unprecedented crisis" and have not received any "tangible support" or "solidarity" from the European Union, "despite many requests for [migrant] relocation and discussions on the need for a permanent solution". The Executive recalled that arrivals in Malta via the Central Mediterranean had increased by 438% over the past three months, a figure that the Maltese authorities could not accept in the absence of assistance from Brussels. In fact, on May 16, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo reiterated the call for more EU aid to reach Libya, with a particular focus on medical care due to the coronavirus crisis, according to the local Times of Malta. On the decision not to participate in Operation Irini, the head of Maltese diplomacy remained firm: "Our position will not change until the migration crisis is addressed," he said.

To this reason, which could be considered as totally legitimate, we can add a more opaque one. In February, a secret pact came to light between Malta and the Libyan GNA to stop the arrival of migrants in the small European country. As part of the agreement, a kind of so-called 'hotline' was set up to keep the Malta Prime Minister's Office in permanent contact with the Libyan Coast Guard authorities. This was contrary to EU principles, which state that the common management of external borders. Therefore, Malta could have abandoned Operation Irini in order not to be prejudiced by its pact with the GNA, which allowed it to control the routes of migrants towards their country outside the doctrines and mechanisms of Brussels, considered as ineffective by Valletta. "We avoided a national crisis," the coordinator of the Prime Minister's Office, Neville Gafà, justified the agreement at the time.

Neville Gafa, primer ministro de Malta
PHOTO/REUTERS - Neville Gafa, Prime Minister of Malta

The second challenge is embodied by Germany, against all odds. The press agency DPA has echoed a report by the country's Ministry of Economy which states that the Berlin government approved arms exports worth 331 million euros to countries accused of supporting parties to the war in the country. Specifically, to Egypt, in operations worth EUR 308.2 million; and to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with EUR 7.7 million, both benefactors of the LNA; but also to Turkey, with EUR 15.1 million, the GNA's main stronghold.

What is suspicious about this matter is that Germany is part of Operation Irini, specifically with 300 soldiers, whose deployment was approved at the beginning of May, with a P3C-Orion maritime patrol plane, operated by 80 troops, and with a frigate with 200 soldiers, which will be sent to the Mediterranean in August. For this reason, Felipe Sánchez Tapia, an analyst with the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies, wonders on Twitter if "it would not be paradoxical if a shipment of German weapons sent to Libya by one of these countries ended up being intercepted by a German ship"

The EU mission also currently includes France, with the anti-aircraft frigate FS Jean Bart (D 615); Luxembourg; Poland, with air support; Italy, providing its territory as the Operation's base and its military facilities for the deployment of the teams; and Greece, which has recently announced that it will send the frigate Hydra at the end of May, along with a helicopter and a team specially trained to carry out VBSS operations (Visit, Board, Search and Seizure).

Una imagen muestra la cubierta del portaaviones francés, Charles de Gaulle, frente a la costa oriental de Chipre en el mar Mediterráneo, el 10 de febrero de 2020
AFP/MARIO GOLDMAN - A picture shows the cover of the French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, off the eastern coast of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea, on 10 February 2020

The third challenge relates to the continuing allegations of lack of impartiality that Operation Irini has received since it was announced last February. Two weeks ago, Ankara rejected the launch of the mission and accused Europe of "deceiving its ally in Tripoli". Sarraj's executive also showed his opposition to the new EU naval mission, which he described as "suspicious" and unbalanced, since they assure that they will only monitor the movements of the GNA and its allies, ignoring the activities of the rival faction headed by Haftar. In fact, at the beginning of May, the Libyan Prime Minister requested a "thorough investigation on the EU military initiative to monitor the UN arms embargo on the country", as the Turkish agency Anadolu reported. "Libya is opposed to the operation because it is unable to prevent military aid from reaching the LNA of renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, as it only controls the sea, so a comprehensive surveillance by land, air and sea must be carried out," Sarraj said. 

In this sense, analyst Tobias Pietz explains in EU Observer that "with its ships, it will only be able to guarantee the implementation of the arms embargo by sea: land and air observation will be possible, but not intervention", so the mission could be ineffective, especially when it comes to controlling the supply of equipment to Haftar's faction, which receives it mainly by land and air, through the Benghasi Airport and the country's eastern border.

El presidente de Turquía, Recep Tayyip Erdogan y el primer ministro del Gobierno de Libia de Acuerdo Nacional (GNA) Fayez al-Sarraj, en Estambul
AFP/Murat CETIMMUHURDAR/Servicio de Prensa Presidencial Turco - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Istanbul

"The new EU mission threatens to degenerate into a purely symbolic operation if the member states continue to interact unilaterally with the parties in conflict in Libya," say the authors of a report published by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is close to the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Taking up this approach, expert Martin Kreickenbaum also denounces hidden motives in the implementation of the EU mission to the WSWS: "The EU and the German government plan to push back their rivals, Turkey, for control of the rich oil reserves on the Libyan coast and in the eastern Mediterranean, and to be in the front line in the new fight over Africa," he says.

Migrantes rescatados sentados junto a un barco de la Guardia Costera en la ciudad de Khoms, Libia
PHOTO/AP - Rescued migrants sitting next to a Coast Guard boat in the city of Khoms, Libya

The fourth and final challenge points to the crisis of legitimacy that could hit the European Union. Operation Irini was launched to replace Operation Sophia, which was designed to fight human trafficking networks, prevent irregular migration flows and prevent more people from dying at sea, as stated by the Spanish Ministry of Defence on its website. Now, with the suspension of its activities, the EU has relegated the rescue of migrants in the central Mediterranean to the background - if not non-existent - with what this entails: the management of these flows entirely by the Libyan Coast Guard - accused of inhumane treatment - and the mafias, which can now operate freely without EU intervention. "It will be difficult for Europe to continue to be seen as an honest broker in the Libyan process. There is still a need for sea rescue. People are drowning in the Mediterranean," says Pietz, who also argues that "it would have been decidedly better not to mix up new related problems of ceasefire monitoring and migration control in the wake of the Berlin Conference. 

On Monday, Borrell phoned Sarraj with the aim of getting the peace negotiations in Libya back on track and effectively implementing Operation Irini. But both remain at a standstill in his speech: while the EU High Representative stressed that the military mission is a contribution to the return of stability in the country, as well as an operational expression of his concrete commitment to the UN-led Berlin Conference, the Libyan Prime Minister insisted on his refusal to stop the flow of arms to Khalifa Haftar's forces. Therefore, only with the rapprochement between the two positions - antagonistic so far - will it be possible to channel Operation Irini, strengthen a strategy to address the migration crisis in the Mediterranean and resolve the Libyan civil war, which has been open and bloody since 2011. A conflict that has been going on for a long time.