A draft EU plan for how to revive Operation Sophia, the bloc’s naval mission in the Central Mediterranean, calls for rescued migrants to be redistributed among member states.
EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to revamp the naval mission as a way to help tackle the crisis in Libya, a day after a conference in Berlin that brokered a truce — at least between France and Italy, and other foreign powers who have backed rival sides in the nearly decade-long conflict in the North African country.
In the final declaration of the Berlin conference, which was not signed off by the Libyan factions but only by their international protectors, all the parties agreed on a tentative cease-fire and to respect an arms embargo established by the United Nations Security Council.
Now the EU has drawn up a six-page draft document, seen by POLITICO, on the bloc’s “contribution to the Berlin Process,” which goes into detail on how the EU can play a role in upholding the arms embargo and the cease-fire.
It forms the basis of a discussion in the EU’s Political and Security Committee — made up of member countries’ ambassadors and which deals with defense and foreign policy issues — which has been tasked with redefining Sophia’s mandate. Those talks started on Friday.
The draft plan envisages two phases to getting Sophia back in action.
Operation Sophia already had a mandate to enforce the U.N. arms embargo in Libya but was unable to do so as, under a compromise deal agreed in March last year, under pressure from Italy’s then-Interior Minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right League, the operation’s lifespan was extended on the condition that it use only its air assets and not its ships. Salvini didn’t want migrants rescued by Operation Sophia to be dropped off in Italy.
The new document suggests a way to overcome this problem, saying the “the proposed redeployment of naval assets would require ad-hoc disembarkation arrangements that could be envisaged either on the basis of flag State arrangements” — as is the case with NATO’s Sea Guardian Operation — “or through an ad-hoc mechanism on disembarkation and redistribution based on the one already put in place.”
According to diplomats, the “ad-hoc mechanism” being referred to is a temporary arrangement agreed last September by Germany, France, Italy and Malta, to share out migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean. However, this mechanism is voluntary and it doesn’t include state-owned vessels, diplomats stressed.
The draft plan envisages two phases to getting Sophia back in action. In the first phase there would be no need to change its mandate as the PSC would “provide operational guidance … to focus the main efforts of the Operation on the contribution to the implementation of the arms embargo.”
The second phase would aim at “formally restructuring the priorities of the mandate and changing the Operation’s name,” so that contributing to the implementation of the arms embargo “becomes its new core task.”
During this second phase, “the Area of Operation could be extended, in particular to provide wider coverage for aerial surveillance,” if the Council approves, the draft says.
Operation Sophia, headquartered in Rome, was launched as a naval mission in June 2015 at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis to disrupt networks of people smugglers. In June 2016 and again in July 2017, the mandate was expanded to include tasks such as the implementation of the U.N. arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya and gathering information on illegal trafficking of oil exports from the North African country.
As for the implementation of the cease-fire, “an EU contribution” should “respond to UN requests and guidance,” the draft says.
If there’s “no agreement on a ceasefire line,” a “civil-military operation could be deployed to a number of permanent team sites” located with both of the warring factions — the UN-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (backed by Italy, the former colonial power, Turkey and Qatar) and the Libyan National Army of the strongman in the east of the country, Khalifa Haftar (backed by France, Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and the U.S).
An annex to the document lists some of the conditions for an EU operation on the ground in Libya: including that “any EU engagement should result from a prior dialogue/political process between the two sides” and that any additional engagement in Libya “should be planned with a clear exit strategy” which would identify the “conditions for a possible termination.”