EU to coordinate request for NATO’s participation in Libya mission

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers by videoconference at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, 15 June 2020. [EPA-EFE/VIRGINIA MAY]

EU foreign minister met on Monday (15 June) with their US counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, amid a widening transatlantic rift over Israel and requests from some member states to step up cooperation on Libya.

During the meeting, some EU member states brought up the issue of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean where the EU is “increasingly concerned about the recent escalations from Turkey,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels.

“In any case, the situation is becoming worse,” Borrell admitted.

Asked whether Pompeo agreed to send a “transatlantic message” to Turkey, Borrell said the US side has been “considering the situation in the Mediterranean, but mainly in relation to the situation in Libya”.

“We agreed on need for deescalation and return to true partnership,” Borrell said after the meeting.

Asked how the US is going to be involved and what other steps could be taken on Turkey’s behaviour, Borrell said the next EU foreign affairs minister’s meeting “will put the issue of our relations with Turkey on the agenda”.

However, while ministers “haven’t gone into detail on the situation in Libya” during their exchange, EU defence ministers are set to discuss Libya and Operation Irini on Tuesday (16 June).

The EU Naval Force Mediterranean Operation Irini was launched on 31 March, with the aim to enforce the UN arms embargo to Libya.

NATO mission participation?

The situation in Libya will be on the agenda when NATO defence ministers hold video talks on Wednesday (17 June), where EU officials suggested the bloc could make the case for NATO’s participation in Operation Irini.

A senior EU official said on Friday (12 June) the bloc had contacted NATO to see “how we can have arrangements” with the military alliance’s Operation Sea Guardian in the eastern Mediterranean.

The move comes after an incident earlier last week on Wednesday, when a Greek vessel with Operation Irini was prevented from inspecting a suspicious Tanzania-flagged freighter by its Turkish military escort.

The incident attracted the attention of Greek media, which described the operation as a “fiasco”.

Contacted by EURACTIV, Peter Stano as EU Spokesperson backed the operation saying it’s been effective so far.

Since its launch, there have been more than 75 occasions when Irini hailed ship and vessels, he said.

“It was also the case on Wednesday (10th June) when Irini hailed for inspection a cargo vessel in the high seas off the coast of Libya – following the usual procedures. We are currently conducting further verifications with the competent authorities.”

Stano added that on other occasions, Operation Irini also collected information about cases involving other actors – including an attempt to violate the oil embargo, which Operation Irini deterred.

However in practice, Operation Irini seems to be ineffective as there is just one Greek frigate off the coast of Libya and the EU now eyes NATO’s support.

According to AFP, NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian has two ships patrolling the Mediterranean to monitor shipping, deter terrorism and “project stability” in the region. It gave information and logistical support to Irini’s predecessor, Operation Sophia, for a number of years.

“Allies are currently discussing how NATO could support the EU’s new maritime mission Irini,” a NATO official said. “It is important that the UN arms embargo is fully implemented.”

NATO member Turkey has strongly backed the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj, which in recent weeks has recaptured all remaining outposts in western Libya from pro-Haftar loyalists, who had sought to seize the capital Tripoli in a 14-month offensive.

Turkey’s stance

Changing Sea Guardian’s activities to support EU’s Operation Irini would require approval from all 30 NATO members – meaning Ankara could potentially veto it.

It would also be unusual for NATO to monitor ships of an ally.

Critics in Athens suggest that such a move could put Ankara in a very difficult position: If Turkey blocks a NATO involvement it will look like Ankara would admit it transports weapons to Libya.

On the other hand, Turkey has reacted negatively to Operation Irini before, saying it was biased, as there is no similar arms embargo on Libya’S southern land border, from where it is believed that pro-Haftar loyalists are getting their weapons to fight the GNA.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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