EXCLUSIVE / The EU is poised to prolong the life of Operation Atalanta, a multi-million euro counter-piracy naval force off the coast of Somalia, as part of the bloc’s comprehensive approach to state-building and peace-making in the Horn of Africa.
The mandate for the force was due to run out in December 2014, but an EU official speaking on condition of anonymity cited “good indications” that it would be extended.
“There is now no reason to believe that member states would not extend it,” the source said. “It is even likely to be extended for two more years.”
The programme, which is thought to cost over €100 million a year, protects international shipping and takes active steps to counter piracy, as well as monitoring fishing activities.
It is viewed by Brussels as one of a raft of tools – including financial aid and the training of security forces – necessary for the EU's 'comprehensive approach' to state-building and peace-making in the Horn of Africa, meshing humanitarian and political tracks.
Partly due to the success of Atalanta, the US state department says that “there has not been a successful pirate attack on a commercial vessel off the Horn of Africa in more than a year and a half, and pirates no longer control a single hijacked vessel.”
Hostage numbers in the region have fallen from over 700 in 2011 to around 50 today. But the EU maintains that it is “strongly committed to bringing this number down to zero: zero ships and zero seafarers in the hands of Somali pirates”.
"The fight against piracy is not yet won," said EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton in a statement. "It is vital that the international community continues to work together to stamp out piracy and consolidate the gains we have already made".
As it assumes the chair of the International Contact Group on piracy off the coast of Somalia for a year, the EU's priorities thus include streamlining the group and bringing in more regional players, such as shipping companies, the African Union and neighbouring states.
The first meeting under the EU's chairmanship will take place in Paris on 28 January.
Last month, France announced that it would allow armed private security guards to protect its shipping fleets against pirates, a move that the EU tacitly endorses.
EU endorses private boat security guards
“It is clear to us that decisions taken by some member states and international partners to have security guards have contributed to the success – or decrease in number of attacks and hostage taking,” the EU official told EURACTIV. “We see it, at least internally, as having contributed politically to the fight against piracy.”
Equally though, that fight is linked in the eyes of EU policy makers with the battle against al-Shabab Salafi Jihadists, whose support has mushroomed in the years since a more moderate Islamic Courts-led government was overthrown in a US-backed coup.
Brussels accepts that the ‘business models’ of al-Shabab and the pirates are very different. “But the fact that Somalia has to dedicate so many security forces to fighting al-Shabab means that they don’t have them to deal with other security crises,” the EU official said.
“That’s why, as the EU, we are present on all fronts, training so many people in the army on one side – which directly contributed to recovering ground from al-Shabab – and also dealing with the piracy issue,” he added.
Strategic EU interests
The Horn of Africa was first described as an area of ‘strategic EU interest’ at an EU Foreign Affairs Council in November 2011, largely due to a governmental vacuum.
This geostrategic importance was defined by historic ties, humanitarianism and a need to protect EU citizens from threats emanating from the region, such as “piracy, terrorism or irregular immigration,” the Council communication said.
Migration has risen in political importance since then and is now considered a ‘strategic EU interest’ in its own right.
“A number of migrants are fleeing Eritrea and Somalia and fleeing north through the Sahel, and many of them tragically end up trapped in places and boats like Lampedusa, so it is really important for the EU to contribute to development and security in the Horn,” the official explained.
The most common nationality among the roughly 360 dead migrants on the Lampedusa boat was Eritrean, although many of these may have come from Libya where their security had become compromised after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.
Since 2008, the EU has given more than €1.2 billion to Somalia in humanitarian and security assistance and last September, the bloc pledged €650 million of additional aid to Somalia in a three-year package.
This was intended to strengthen state-building, security institutions, tax collection, and justice systems. “Building resilient communities needs to be at the forefront of our future interventions,” the development commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, said as he launched the initiative.
While some EU leaders have called for development aid to be used to contain immigration, the Commission insists that the two issues, though linked, be kept separate.
Don Flynn, the director of the Migrants Rights Network in London said that the EU had an intelligence-gathering strategy monitoring the movement of potential migrants in the Horn of Africa.
“It is very much an item on the EU’s policy agenda and does influence the way the EU views the horn of Africa,” he told EURACTIV.
“The EU has made a huge investment over a long period of time in surveillance, monitoring using passports and visas, and an attempted bigger project aimed at standardising visas,” he said.
Europe first adopted its current approach to migration at a special European Council in Tampere, Finland in 1999, developed further at summits in Amsterdam and Stockholm, based on cooperation between countries of migrants’ origin, transit and destination.