EU foreign affairs ministers have agreed to launch a new naval operation in the Central Mediterranean, with the old mission that was supposed to fulfill that brief — Operation Sophia — to be closed down.
“We agreed to launch a new operation in the Mediterranean and Operation Sophia will be closed,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said at the end of a meeting of ministers in which they discussed how to follow on from an international conference on Libya in Berlin at which they agreed to help implement a U.N. arms embargo and a ceasefire.
Monday’s decision was taken “after a very long discussion, one of the longest discussions and more intense discussions that I remember,” Borrell said.
The new operation will involve aerial, satellite and maritime assets to monitor the U.N. arms embargo, he said, adding that ministers will discuss at their next meeting, in March, how to also implement the embargo on the almost 1,200-kilometer land border between Egypt and Libya.
At a meeting last month, the ministers agreed to “revive, refocus Operation Sophia,” the EU’s naval mission in the Central Mediterranean whose vessels were blocked from taking to the seas at the request of the former Italian government, which included the far-right League. (Party leader Matteo Salvini didn’t want migrants rescued by Operation Sophia to be dropped off in Italy.)
“Sophia is finished, we have a new mission and a clear demarcation line against abuses of traffickers” — Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg
Yet reviving Sophia proved difficult as Austria, backed by Hungary, argued against redeploying vessels, fearing that they could make the idea of migration more appealing because it would increase the chances of being rescued, the so-called pull factor (an argument denied by EU officials who say that the number of migrants leaving Libya has decreased since the operation was launched in 2015).
“Maritime assets will be withdrawn from the relevant areas” if they are seen to be proving attractive to would-be migrants, said Borrell.
The solution ministers found on Monday was to ditch Sophia, change its name and the area of operation, and make it operational only off the eastern part of the Libyan coast — “where the arms are coming from,” said Borrell.
Diplomats say that the eastern part of the coast is where weapons from Turkey arrive, with other weapons, especially from the Emirates, arriving across the land border between Libya and Egypt.
Perhaps more crucially is if (and how) rescued migrants would be redistributed across the bloc.
The new operation (which, according to two diplomats, will change its name to “EU active surveillance”) will retain Sophia’s tasks such as fighting against people smugglers.
Austria and Italy were quick to say they liked the agreement. “I believe that we can be quite satisfied with what has been achieved today: Sophia is finished, we have a new mission and a clear demarcation line against abuses of traffickers,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg.
“Finally we all agreed as member states to create a mission that blocks the arrival of weapons in Libya,” said his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio.
Yet there are plenty of details still to be worked out, including who would decide if there is a pull factor. “We haven’t got these details,” said Borrell.
Perhaps more crucially is if (and how) rescued migrants would be redistributed across the bloc. Diplomats stress that very few migrants leave from the east of Libya, but under Sophia, all rescued migrants were taken to Italy.
“We’ll demand new rules,” Di Maio said, adding that in his view they will either apply the same rules as NATO’s Sea Guardian operation, where vessels operate on the basis of flag state arrangements, or “ports rotation.”
However, many diplomats argue that decisions on migration redistribution can only be taken by EU leaders because it is so politically sensitive.