A European ‘Mare Nostrum’ instead of Operation Sophia 2.0

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File photo. Members of the Italian Navy ride towards a boat carrying migrants, during a rescue operation in the Mediterran Sea, 19 September 2015. [Giuseppe Lami/EPA/EFE]

An EU mission within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy is not the adequate instrument for controversial domestic issues such as migration, writes Tobias Pietz.

Tobias Pietz is Deputy Head of Analysis Division, Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF), Berlin.

Italy’s new government ‘Conte II’ has been officially confirmed. One of the continuing stumbling blocks for the new coalition are the policies of former Minister of Interior, Matteo Salvini, especially the ones on sea rescue and disembarking of migrants. In his governmental declaration in parliament, old and new Prime Minster Conte announced a “mini revisione” – a small revision – of the anti-migration laws of Salvini.

The former Minister of Interior was also one of the driving forces behind the collapse of Operation Sophia, when the maritime mission was rendered useless in March 2019 after member states withdrew all naval assets. Its mandate runs until the end of this month. Thus member states and the European Union will soon, again, debate what to do with the maritime mission.

With the fresh start in Rome, and a recent renaissance of sea rescues by NGO ships, more European politicians are thinking about an Operation Sophia 2.0: “Surely it would be good if we had another Sophia mission today and official ships that would undertake rescue missions,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the farewell ceremony for former Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen a couple of weeks ago. Her call for a new rescue mission has been since echoed by other members of her cabinet as well as the European Commission.

EUNAVFOR Med, the official name of the EU naval mission in the Mediterranean, has indeed achieved extraordinary results by saving almost 49,000 people from mid of 2015 until summer 2018. During the same period, however, the Italian coastguard and humanitarian organizations carried the main burden, each rescuing more than 100,000 people. This is not surprising, since sea rescue was not part of the mission’s original mandate, but is an international legal obligation. The central task of EUNAVFOR Med was to combat human trafficking, even though it was often referred to as a sea rescue mission by both its supporters and critics. Due to its mandate to combat smuggling, the mission’s ships operated on smuggling routes and, consequently, encountered people in distress at sea.

EUNAVFOR Med was originally deployed to replace Italy’s own – and so far most successful – sea rescue mission “Mare Nostrum”. In 2014, Italy had to close “Mare Nostrum”, because the other member states refused to contribute to the costs. From the outset, it was controversial whether a military EU mission was the right replacement for a sea rescue mission as well as the right way to combat smugglers and to train the coastguard in a country fragmented by civil war.

The mission’s training of and cooperation with the Libyan coastguard has indeed proven to be very ambivalent: The Libyan coastguard does not save human lives efficiently because it lacks the will, expertise and resources to do so. And when it does rescue people (or has them handed over by other actors), they all too often end up in camps in Libya where they are abused or even tortured.

Compared to the times of “Mare Nostrum” it is now much more dangerous to flee across the Mediterranean: during its deployment, nearly 4 out of 1,000 fugitives drowned in the Mediterranean. Since the cessation of “Mare Nostrum” this number increased to 24 out of 1,000. Populists often argue that the prospect of rescue is a “pull factor”, i.e. that it would encourage people to flee across the Mediterranean – but there is still no reliable scientific evidence for this. On the contrary: the year in which most people fled, namely over 180,000, was 2016, in which “Mare Nostrum” had long ceased to exist. In that year, almost 5,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean Sea – more than ever before.

The public hostility towards Operation Sophia by populists in Europe has clearly shown: an EU mission within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy is not the adequate instrument for controversial domestic issues such as migration. The European border agency Frontex, together with national coastguards and EUROPOL, would be the better answer for the prosecution and indictment of smugglers as well as successful sea rescue. But here, too, compromises with all member states are currently proving difficult.

Instead, Europe needs a second, this time European “Mare Nostrum”, in which the member states participate who no longer want to watch people drown – and who also want to put an end to the unworthy haggling over the admission of the (currently very few) refugees. France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain and Luxembourg who recently accepted migrants from various NGO ships should be the core for a European “Mare Nostrum”. The new Italian government could join that coalition. Before that, European member states should apologize to Italy for abandoning them in 2014 and beyond which contributed to the rise of the populists. An apology could help the government in Rome to put an end to Salvini’s policies towards sea rescues and maybe enable a new compromise for the Mediterranean.

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