Brussels has failed to revive an EU-led naval mission to uphold the arms embargo on Libya, with some dissenting voices in the bloc arguing that the ships' presence would attract migrants setting out from African shores.
EU foreign ministers are unlikely to support the return of Operation Sophia – a maritime mission in the Mediterranean launched in 2015 to enforce the embargo – during a meeting on Monday, Europe's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell acknowledged.
"I don't think today we are going to be able [to reach an agreement]," Borrell said, expressing hope that disagreements could instead be resolved by the next meeting in March.
Multiple countries had "some final reluctance," he explained, without going into details. While Borrell said the situation on the ground in Libya "is very, very bad," humanitarian considerations don't seem to play a big part in the EU's rationale.
Ahead of Monday's talks, Borrell's office distributed a memo urging EU nations to agree on the naval mission. The document warned that if the 27 members fail to reach agreement, "the EU will become irrelevant and others will continue to determine the development of events in Libya."
However, not every EU nation shared that kind of geopolitical thinking. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg insisted that "something new has to be put in place; a military operation, not a humanitarian operation."
Later, he told Germany's Die Welt newspaper that bringing Operation Sophia back on track would mean EU warships having to rescue illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching European shores.
Austria supports increased aerial surveillance and even the deployment of EU border guards – but it still believes that a naval mission won't help to keep the embargo in place. "At a meeting in Vienna a few days ago, my Libyan counterpart confirmed to me that a maritime mission is unsuitable for controlling the arms embargo," Schallenberg stated.
It is a "fact" that arms deliveries to Libya are mainly coming by land and air, so a group of military ships won't make any difference, he argued.
Italy also insisted that the renewed mission should not focus on rescue operations, and should instead deal with mid-sea patrols only. "The reactivation of Operation [Sophia] is possible but with a profoundly revised mandate and a focus on the arms embargo in Libya," Italian Vice Foreign Minister Emanuela Del Re told Reuters last Tuesday.
Heiko Maas, foreign minister of neighboring Germany, said that Europe's "migration problems can only be solved if Libya does not remain a failed state." Fewer migrants would embark on an illegal journey to Europe if the region becomes more secure, he suggested.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn backed Berlin's stance, but took a swipe at Austria's stubbornness. "It's too much to abandon or break with our consensus, just to avoid having to save a few people [at sea]," he said.
Operation Sophia was suspended as a naval mission in March 2019, after Italy objected to European warships rescuing and landing migrants in its ports. It is now mainly limited to aerial surveillance.
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