EU to use revamped ‘Operation Sophia’ to enforce Libyan arms embargo

EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the aftermath of the Berlin Conference on Libya. Brussels, Belgium. 20 January, 2020. [European Union]

EU foreign minister decided on Monday (20 January) to revive a maritime surveillance mission in the Mediterranean to enforce a potential cease-fire in Libya and a UN arms embargo against the country’s warring parties. Meanwhile, the bloc is scrambling to avoid being drawn into a conflict that threatens to destabilise the whole of the Mediterranean.

The decision comes a day after world powers pledged to end military support for the parties in Libya’s civil war and uphold the existing UN arms embargo at the Berlin Conference on the Libya crisis on Sunday.

So far, there has been no legally binding ceasefire agreement between rebel commander Khalifa Haftar and Libya’s internationally recognised government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. Meanwhile, external actors like Turkey, Russia, Egypt and France have pledged to stop their interference into the Libyan conflict, which has turned into a proxy war.

Before the EU foreign affairs ministers meeting, there had been talk of setting up a European military mission to monitor any ceasefire, but ministers arriving in Brussels did not explain what such a mission would mean in practice.

The EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell had raised eyebrows on Friday (17 January) with calls for the EU to consider sending troops to Libya to enforce a potential ceasefire on the ground.

“It’s clear that the arms embargo requires high-level control and if you want to keep the ceasefire alive someone has to monitor it,” Borrell reiterated upon arrival at the meeting in Brussels.

Asked about the next steps following the Berlin Conference on Libya, he stressed that “it is clear that the arms embargo requires a level of control and if you want to keep the ceasefire alive, someone has to monitor it. United Nations, African Union, or the European Union, someone has to do it.”

“We cannot let the ceasefire work by itself,” Borrell added.

According to the EU treaties, it is up to EU foreign ministers to decide on the deployment of EU military missions. But so far, the EU28 had been cautious about considering having any troops in Libya.

Recycled Operation Sophia

Until there is a tangible ceasefire to monitor, EU foreign ministers discussed plans for an EU force to monitor the sea and air arms embargo off the coast of Libya, seeking a way to revive the Rome-based Operation Sophia (EUNAVFOR).

Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 to combat people smugglers operating from the Libyan coast and to also enforce a UN arms embargo on the warring parties. It was suspended as a naval mission in March 2019, after Italy objected to recused migrants being landed in its ports, and is now limited to aerial surveillance.

The name and objectives of the new operation are subject to change, something to which Italy has not raised any objection to, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV.

“The mandate of Operation Sophia will be to refocus especially on the issue of the embargo, not only by sea, (…) but to control the embargo it will require satellite and air tools, which at the time being are not included in the old Operation Sophia,” Borrell told reporters after the meeting.

But he declined to say if the vessels in the future framework will save migrants as is required by international law.

Maritime zones disputes

Meanwhile, Turkey has been flexing its muscle across the Mediterranean Sea, from Libya to Syria, where Ankara has taken on diplomatic and military roles.

Furthermore, Turkey recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya to demarcate maritime zones in the region, which triggered strong reactions in Athens, Nicosia and Cairo as the Turkish-Libyan deal ignores the island of Crete and Greece says Turkey wants to set a legal precedent with an “illegal” MoU under international law.

Athens, which was not invited to take part in the Libya conference, was disturbed by the fact that the Berlin summit’s 55-point concluding paper included no reference to the Turkey-Libya MoU on maritime zones, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV.

Highlighting the complexity of the EU’s objective to find a way forward, the Greek government had announced in the previous days it is not willing to accept any political deal for Libya that doesn’t annul the agreement the Libyan government struck with Turkey on maritime borders.

However, EU foreign ministers reiterated their opposition to the MoU during their meeting in Brussels on Monday, while sources admitted that Germany is making efforts to manage Greece’s disappointment for not having been invited to Berlin.

Tensions with Turkey have also been growing over its activities in the region, with Ankara expanding its claims over a large gas-rich sea area which Cyprus says includes its territorial waters.

According to Borrell, the Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides updated his colleagues on the current state-of-play in the drilling spat, especially after Turkey’s decision to move on with drillship Yavuz off Cyprus.

Christodoulides also asked his colleagues “for a list of persons and entities involved into the illegal activities to take decisions about potential sanctions”, Borrell added.

According to EU diplomats, the Scandinavians asked to discuss the sanctions matter at the next Foreign Affairs Council in February as they expressed concerns about some procedural issues to deal with in their respective parliaments.

Asked if there are suspicions for an EU country to oppose sanctions against Turkey, sources named Hungary as potential objector.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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