EU’s Operation Irini Promotes a Poor Image of the EU
Rajesh Soami

The European Union launched operation IRINI in the Mediterranean on 1st of April, 2020. The operation is officially called EUNAVFOR MED Irini where EUNAVFOR stands for European Union Naval Force and MED stands for the Mediterranean Sea. Irini succeeds EUNAVFOR MED Sophia. While Sophia’s primary goal was to combat illegal immigration into Europe, its mandate was expanded to include “contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya” vide UN Security Resolution 2292 in 2016. The mandate has been extended every year since.

Civil war has been raging in Libya since 2014. The two contestants in the conflict are ostensibly the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA). Both factions claim to be the legitimate government of the country representing its entire people. The two sides are supported by other regional powers. While Qatar and Turkey support the GNA, LNA is supported by Arab countries Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and to some extent Saudi Arabia. France and Russia are also occasionally accused of favouring the LNA. The participation of other states and foreign actors has turned the country’s civil war into a sort of proxy war.

The conflict has taken an increasingly violent turn since April 2019 when General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the LNA, launched an assault to capture the capital city Tripoli from GNA aligned militias. The supply of sophisticated arms to the two factions from their backers has raised the tempo of fighting. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has slammed the continued foreign interference in Libya as a "scandal".

In April this year, the European Union signalled its willingness to control the flow of foreign arms into Libya. Although Sophia was given this mandate in 2016, it never started on it. The launch of Irini gave new hope that EU's intervention would stop bloodletting in Libya. In contrast to Sophia, enforcing the UN’s arms embargo on Libya was stated as the primary responsibility of Irini.

Unfortunately for the EU, Irini ran into rough weather even before its inception. Since then, things have only worsened. Diplomatic wrangling preceded the start of the operation, with many European states opposing the mission altogether. Austria and Hungary in particular were opposed to the maritime operation as they feared that, Irini would increase illegal immigration into Europe. Maritime law obligates all seagoing vessels to rescue anyone in distress. This law has been misused by human smugglers who push immigrants overboard at the sight of EU ships which then ‘rescue’ them to European ports.

After its launch, Irini has been largely ineffective. For one, it does not have the means to fulfill its aims. On June 18th, the press office of Operation Irini admitted that it had only one ship at its disposal. This prompted the EU’s high representative Josep Borrell to appeal to the member states to provide more resources for the cause. However, enthusiasm in the EU for Operation Irini seems to be low.

On top of widespread reluctance, declining defence capabilities and budgets of EU governments make it difficult for even willing states to contribute resources for EU operations. Europe’s dependence on the United States for its defence related needs is well known. However, its inability to manage even small operations such as Irini is alarming to say the least. Within months of the launch of Operation Irini, the EU is already looking for support from NATO which automatically means more American involvement.

The failure of Irini is advertising itself loudly even as most EU officials try to put up a brave face. Between April and July, increasing foreign intervention in the Libyan civil war led to major changes in the frontline, mostly in favour of GNA. That Turkish support is the reason for this development is also widely acknowledged. Ankara has supplied GNA with advanced weapons, ammunition, military advisors and even brought allied militia fighters from Syria to counter General Haftar’s forces. It is also known that bulk of these supplies came through the Mediterranean Sea.

On 10th June, when a Greek frigate attempted to search a Tanzanian vessel suspected of carrying arms to Libya, it was prevented from doing so by the Turkish navy. The same vessel was once again in the spotlight when French frigate Courbet tried to approach it to check its cargo but was once again restrained from doing so by the Turkish Navy. The French claim that the Turks were aggressive and targeted Courbet with missiles. Paris has since lodged an official complaint with NATO where both France and Turkey are members.

Turkey on its part has accused the EU of being prejudiced against itself and the GNA. It claims that Irini is designed to prevent it from supporting the GNA in the Mediterranean even as LNA’s foreign allies are free to supply it through land and air. Although there is some grain of truth in this, by supplying armaments to a Libyan faction, Turkey is violating both the UNSC resolutions as well as its own commitments it made in the Berlin conference on Libya in January earlier this year. This though is par for the course for conflicts in the West Asia-North Africa (WANA) region where hypocrisy is rampant. Regional powers pay little heed to ethics or conventions or even to established international law.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Libya has continued to escalate. The GNA offensive, supported by Turkey, has rolled back LNA’s advances and is now threatening Haftar’s base in eastern Libya. Egypt has already stated its intention to intervene militarily in support of LNA if the GNA advance does not stop. Russia has also allegedly moved airplanes from Syria to Libya in anticipation of escalation in the conflict.

The European Union on the other hand seems to have placed all its eggs in the ethics and conventions basket despite increasing evidence that its approach to international politics isn't working. Turkey has continued to ignore EU's sensitivities regarding both, Syria and now Libya. In fact, it has repeatedly used the refugee card to bend Europe to its will. The tiny state of the UAE 5000 kilometers away has more influence in Libya today than Europe whose borders are only at 400 kms distance. Other smaller states also either ignore the EU or give polite lip service to its concerns.

Some sections in the EU governance structures realise the declining influence of Europe in world affairs, not to mention its own neighbourhood. To arrest the downward trend, the EU has also produced academic outputs in the field of defence and foreign policy from time to time. However, almost nothing has translated into real change in EU’s policies.

The current EU administration promised to deliver a geopolitical commission when it took office in November last year. Previously the EU has also activated Europe wide defence mechanisms through PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation). However, on geopolitical matters, the EU continues to work on the lowest common denominator model. It does not want to take any real step which may lead to accusations of militarism or aggression by its own pacifist population.

Greece has urged the EU not to be weak on imposing the arms embargo on Libya. "We cannot take decisions, and then look weak in enforcing them," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said some days after multiple incidents involving Turkish ships in the mediterranean. However, that is exactly what has transpired. Few countries in Europe supported France in its standoff with Turkish ships.

EUNAVFOR MED Irini has unfortunately turned into an image of the EU itself. Divided and ineffective are some of the words which could describe the EU's naval operation. The EU’s call to NATO for help also exposes the irony of its geopolitical situation. Europe has a difficult relationship with the Trump administration in Washington DC. Apart from ideological problems, Trump’s demand that European states spend the amount on defence that they committed in NATO has ruffled European feathers. The EU however is forced to request NATO assistance in its own backyard even in the face of an indifferent American administration today.

Irini is one of the symptoms of larger malaise inflicting the European Union. Presently, it is difficult to bet against further erosion of EU influence around the world. For India, which is seeking a stronger partnership with the western hemisphere, the lessons are stark. Europe will retain its economic strength and diplomatic and moral weight in global affairs. However, brazen violations of the arms embargo in EU’s neighbourhood and Europe’s sheepish response to these dent its image. If the EU is unable to manage its affairs near its borders, the prospects of it having strong influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) or South China Sea (SCS) look bleak.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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