EU to end Operation Sophia and to launch new Mediterranean operation to monitor UN Libya arms embargo

By Sami Zaptia.

European Union and Libya. The concept of relationship between EU and Libya.

London, 18 February 2020:

The European Union announced yesterday that it will be launching a new Mediterranean operation to monitor the UN Libya arms embargo by the end of March 2020.

The anti-illegal migration operation ‘‘Operation Sophia’’ will be terminated on 31 March. However, if illegal migration across the Mediterranean increases, the EU will pull maritime assets away from the new arms embargo operation to counter that. The news was revealed during a press conference yesterday by the EU High Representative and Vice President Josep Borrel.

After briefing media at a press conference on several issues discussed during Monday’s European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting, High Representative and Vice President Josep Borrel said ‘‘But the most important issue that we have discussed today is Libya. The German Minister [of Foreign Affairs] Heiko Maas debriefed colleagues of the [Foreign Affairs] Council on the outcome of yesterday’s follow up meeting on the Berlin process we had on the margins of the Munich Security Conference.

There was a strong call for the arms embargo to be fully respected and implemented. We know that it is not the case. The arms embargo is violated systematically, and it is going to feed the fighters with an incredible amount of arms that make the ceasefire difficult and the truce very weak.

The Ministers agreed that we, as European Union, can play a role and I am happy to announce that after a very long discussion – one of the longest and more intense discussions I can remember -, we managed to reach a political agreement that this morning before starting the [Foreign Affairs] Council I really thought would be impossible. But it is proof that when there is political will, nothing is impossible. Let me go through the main lines of this political agreement that will have to be [made more] concrete at the next Foreign Affairs Council.

We agreed to launch a new operation in the Mediterranean Sea and Operation Sophia will be closed. Operation Sophia reaches its end on the 31st of March and on that day Operation Sophia will finish. We are going to launch a new operation in the Mediterranean. We agreed that this operation will have as a goal the implementation of the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations Security Council. The operation will comprise aerial, satellite and maritime assets. Not only maritime assets, satellite and aerial, the warships themselves will serve as the basis for the radar control of their space.

The aerial operation will be defined in accordance with the agreed mandate. It means that it is not going to be the same area of operation than the one of [Operation] Sophia. [Operation] Sophia was covering the whole Libyan coast, from one side to the other, from one border to the other border of the country. If we want to control the arms embargo, we have to concentrate our surveillance on the Eastern part, where the arms are coming from and a strategic situation with respect to the routes followed by the ships bringing arms to Libya. But the military staff will define the area of operation according with this mandate. We agreed that it will maintain other supporting and secondary tasks, including as regards fighting organised crime responsible for migration and also continue training the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy.

We have noted legitimate concerns of some Member States regarding potential impact on migration flows – the so-called pull effect -, and indicated that this will be monitored carefully and reported on regularly by the Operation Commander.

On this basis, in case of observation of pull factors on migration, maritime assets will be withdrawn from the relevant areas. In case there is a pull effect, and there are different opinions about it, some believe that this pull factor will appear, others believe that on the Eastern part it is not going to happen because the migration routes go from the centre to the West, but let us see what happens. In case that this pull factor appears, maritime assets will be withdrawn from the relevant area.

From here, from today until the next Foreign Affairs Council, the Political and Security Committee and COREPER [Committee of the Permanent Representatives] will develop all the necessary arrangements and details for the implementation of this political agreement. The Member States that need to go through a parliamentarian procedure – this is the case, for example, of Sweden and Germany – will have time to do so.

Now, we have to move speedily to elaborate and adopt a Council Decision along these lines. For sure, subject to national procedures in Member States. This has been agreed by unanimity. That is why I am so satisfied, because really at 9 o’clock in the morning I was not sure that it could be agreed. That is good news and it represents a strong commitment from the European Union to implement the arms embargo.


Media Q&A relevant to Libya

Media: Does closing Operation Sophia and starting a new one require a new UN mandate or can the mandate of Operation Sophia be reclaimed to enforce the arms embargo?

Josep Borrel: The MANDATE of the United Nations may remain the same. I don’t think we need a new mandate.

Media: The vessels in case of ‘pull factor’ will be moved away from that area, but will remain anyway in the Central Mediterranean area? Have you discussed how to implement the arms embargo on the border between Egypt and Libya?

Josep Borrel: It is very difficult for us to act on the border between two sovereign countries. We cannot arrive there and say ‘Hello the Europeans are coming’ to the Egyptians and Libyans. Some Member States have proposed other actions. I am very satisfied by the fact that several Member States have proposed other actions on the ground, which has to be done certainly in agreement with the Libyan authorities. Remember that Libya is a sovereign country. We cannot disembark there saying ‘I am going to do whatever’.  For the time being it was quite difficult and we had enough on getting an agreement on the new operation. We will leave this for the next Foreign Affairs Council.

About the withdrawal of the warships, the text says that they will be withdrawn from the relevant area, which means – as I understand it – as the areas where the ‘pull factor’ has manifested [itself]. It does not mean that it will have to be withdrawn from other areas.

Media. A question about the famous pull factor is an effect that has never been demonstrated before. You yourself said that by the time Operation Sophia was present at sea, attempts to cross had decreased. In a way, does it not confirm the opposite, that there is indeed a risk of pull factor?

Josep Borrel: We have discussed this a lot, there are different opinions. I personally think that there have been none and that there would be difficult but each has its own interpretations.

You know the interpretations are tainted with ideology. Everyone interprets the world according to their ideas, and I prefer to go and see the numbers and the numbers clearly say that during Operation Sophia in the first year the number of migrants continued to increase, perhaps inertially but then it has decreased and it has decreased dramatically, from 150,000 to some 25,000. But everything is interpretable.

The data can be interpreted in one way or another and there are countries that interpret that there is a risk. I think there is no need to discuss whether there is a risk or there is no risk. If the risk arises we will act accordingly, if it does not manifest we will continue.

Media: Can you elaborate on the offer some Member States made for other solutions on the ground to deal with the issues on the Egyptian/Libyan border? On the withdrawal of maritime units, are you not worried that this might reduce the effectiveness of the operation? Because the traffickers might know that as soon as they send out a certain number of boats with migrants you can withdraw all the ships, and then you are not going to have any ships in the waters where they might actually want to smuggle weapons.

Josep Borrel: That is a very sophisticated reasoning. You mean that there would be a concertation between arms traffickers, ‘You send some boats with migrants and then the boats of the Europeans will leave’. It may happen, but we have to reach an agreement. Some Member States were not willing to launch this operation because they were afraid of creating a ‘pull factor’. Others were willing to take the risk. At the end, we decided as always for a [compromise] solution. We go for it and, if what some are afraid will happen does indeed happen, then we withdraw the ships according to the circumstances and in the relevant areas.  If you want to reach an agreement, you have to do some concessions.

Media: If by any chance it happens that the new mission encounters saves some migrants, can they do it, if the meet some of these ships in the Mediterranean, or they just leave them away, and where would they be taken in case they could save them? Do you consider this decision, the fact that Sophia is finished, do you consider it as a defeat or victory for the European Union?

Josep Borrel: Operation Sophia worked very well, to my understanding, when it was operational. Today Operation Sophia is still alive, theoretically, but without ships, only with aerial means. By the end of March we will arrive to the end of the term. If we launch a new operation and we do not want to create a ‘pull effect’, I do not think it is necessary to have two operations. In any case several Member States were very much insisting on the fact that we cannot have two different naval operations. Of course international law remains international law and the law of the sea remains the law of the sea. If a ship encounters people who are drowning then we have to save them. [As to where they would be taken to], this is something that will have to be discussed. We cannot say ‘You found someone? Do not help them’. That is impossible. It is against any principle of humanitarian and international law.

Media: You have said that the warships will serve as a radar basis for aerial surveillance but what will happen if they actually encounter a ship that is suspected of delivering weapons or troops? Will they be able to stop the ship?

Josep Borrel: For sure. They are not just having a promenade.

Media: Will any of the naval assets operate in Libyan waters? Who will make the decision as to where the ’pull factor’ has been big enough to withdraw a ship from that area? Will it be the commander or will it be the Foreign Affairs Council? And how long will it take? Your argument before was to keep the same mission because otherwise it would take a lot of time to create a new one?

Josep Borrel: The question about the successor of Operation Sophia – we have to look for a name of the new operation. On Libyan waters, you know there is a military staff. We are Ministers of Foreign Affairs, we are not specialists on this kind of issues. The General [Claudio] Graziano [The Chairman of the European Union Military Committee], who is the head of the military staff – who advises me and advises the Council on military issues – was there. He explained clearly that there is no other alternative in order to implement the arms embargo than having ships in the water. Which waters? This will depend on the intelligence about the routes followed by the ships bringing arms. They are not going blindly by the sea, they will have an intelligence behind them. They will have information and they will be strategically placed where the ships bringing arms to Libya can pass by.

Media: Who will make the decision on whether the ‘pull factor’ has been big enough to withdraw and how long will this take to set-up?

Josep Borrel: We have not gone into these details, but I suppose it would be done by the Council under the advice of the military committee. It is the military committee that has to tell us ‘look, the figures, the numbers of migrants intercepted is picking up’. 1 would not be enough and 100 000 would be too much. In the middle, there is a wide range of situations. The military staff will tell us and the Council will take the decision.

Media: Are there any proposal for how large this force will be and who will provide the assets? You are aware of the doubts there are about the effectiveness of a naval operation because of the quantity of arms coming by land and air. What would you say to that scepticism and what percentage of weapons do you estimate come by sea to Libya?

Josep Borrel: We do what we can. It is clear that we cannot deploy army troops on the ground on the border between Libya and Egypt. It is clear that we cannot do that. But an important part of the traffic of arms goes by sea from the eastern part of Libya. The military advisers have been telling us, to the Ministers that one important thing is to use the radars on board of the ships in order to control the air traffic, to know where are the planes coming from and what kind of planes they are. This will give important information about the traffic of arms.

Media: What about the proposals on how big this force will be and which countries will provide assets?

Josep Borrel: A lot of countries are volunteering. I do not think we are going to be in a shortage of resources. Once again it is the military who have to say if they need two, three or five [warships]. We have not gone into these details.

Media: When do you expect these warships to be deployed? Do you have a timeframe? And just to confirm what you said before about the ships not being there for a promenade, next time that Turkey sends militias or Russia send mercenaries to this area, Commanders of for example German frigates will engage, even if they have to deal with Russian or Turkish nationals? These would be the rules of engagement?

Josep Borrel: The rules of engagement have to be proposed by the military Command. The rules of engagement will have to be proposed by the professionals of these kind of issues, which are not easy to deal with. Today we have put on the table a political agreement. We are going to send navy ships in order to control the routes followed by the ships that bring arms to Libya. For sure, they are not there to just have a look and say “hello”. No, they have to act. If there is traffic of arms, they will have to react and interfere the movement of the ships. On which basis? Under which rules of engagement? There are specialists of the navy who will tell us how to follow it.

About the timing, if we are able to approve the specific and concrete items of the mission on the next Foreign Affairs Council – which I hope -, then it can be launched immediately after. I hope that by the end of March the mission could be operational’’.

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