It was only after several rounds of heated discussions that, on the 25th of March, the Council of the European Union deliberated on the mandate of a new military operation in the Central Mediterranean. The operation, called EUNAVFOR MED “Irini” (Greek for “peace”), was devised to substitute Operation Sophia, whose mandate expired at the end of March. Beyond a partial geographical overlap, the mandates of the two operations have little in common. Sophia’s initial (and main) task was to disrupt the business model of Libyan smugglers and traffickers, while implementing the arms embargo came later as a secondary and less programmatic task. On the contrary, the latter constitutes Irini’s primary goal in the Libyan situation. Since the inception of Sophia, when the “migration crisis” (a concept that remains controversial) peaked in tragedies at sea in 2015, the situation in the region has changed, and the same is true of political discourses. This shift was reflected by the mandate of Irini, whose content is indicative of the set of priorities the States members to the Council shared, at least enough for them to reach an understanding. In what follows, I examine how Operation Irini inserts itself in the Central Mediterranean scenario, both as a security mission and a migration management tool, to gain an insight on the European approach to the crises in its neighbourhood.

As already mentioned, the core of Operation Irini is the enforcement of UN arms embargo on Libya, first sanctioned in 2011 by Security Council Resolution 1970. Since then, many States have pledged respect for the Resolution, while smuggling weapons for both sides of the Libyan civil war, in a more or less blatant way. The latest report of the UN Panel of Experts in November 2019 pointed to major violators like the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, France and Russia, among others. The complete disregard for the UN Resolution sheds clear light on the lack of an enforcement mechanism without which the arms embargo on Libya will become, as the former UN special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé put it, “a cynical joke”. The resignation of Mr. Salamé, due to his frustration over great powers’ meddling in the Libyan crisis, speaks volumes of the level of respect paid to the embargo, especially after the pretentious commitments given at the Berlin Conference in January 2020.

In order to stop the inflow of weapons coming to Libyan shores, the European Union is going to deploy aerial, satellite and naval instruments, legally authorized to inspect inbound vessels. Although this move seems to fall in line with the three-point roadmap envisioned by Mr. Salamé, it is not devoid of flaws. Even though the effective area of operation still needs to be defined by the planning documents, which determine the details of engagement, the published mandate makes clear that on-board inspections will be limited to the high seas off the Libyan coast. This is problematic per se because it leaves three-quarters of Libyan borders to satellite and aerial surveillance. Even the High Representative of the EU Josep Borrell admitted that Irini was part of the solution, and not the solution, to the Libyan crisis. Furthermore, this geographical restriction could also have an impact on the balance among the actors of the civil war. Countries like Turkey are more reliant on sea transportation for arms supply than other countries, like the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The latter relies on land- and air-transportation, which Operation Irini would leave unscathed. From such an implementation, the UN-backed Government of National Accord would be the one to suffer the blow, given its close military partnership with Turkey, while the Operation would have only a limited impact on Haftar Armed Forces, which instead rely extensively on arms supplies from UAE and Egypt.

The shortcomings of the Operation can be explained by looking at the tense debate that preceded its inception and led to a compromise that could satisfy all Member States. Irini was supposed to substitute Operation Sophia upon its expiration at the end of March 2020. The rub lay in the fact that political support for Sophia was already dwindling while the operation was still ongoing. The allegation, which garnered momentum in right-wing and populist milieus, was that deployments in the high seas in front of Libyan shores were becoming a pull factor for migrants, prompting the right-wing leaning Italian government to call for the withdrawal of European ships. Even if the "pull-factor" allegation had already been partially disproved – at least for NGOs rescue operations – it still constituted the main grounds of opposition for States like Austria and Hungary in the lead-up to the creation of Irini. An agreement was finally reached, which repurposed the Operation for the arms embargo, leaving in second place the monitoring of illegal petroleum smuggling, training of Libyan Coastguard and the contrast of human smugglers and traffickers. The agreement added a backstop clause that would allow the Political and Security Committee (exercising political control) to interrupt the Operation in the event of it producing a pull effect on migration. Potential migrants rescued at sea are to be brought to Greece, which offered its ports with the condition of the economic burden to be shared. Such controversies at the negotiation table gave birth to a mission designed to fill Operation Sophia’s vacuum but not its role. The political attritions that led to the compromise mandate in the Council left matters like the effectiveness of the embargo unresolved.

In light of this turbulent inception, two points need to be made. First, from the migration management side, the deployment of a bolder operation was kept hostage of “pull factor” discourses, persisting even in front of the drastic decrease of departures from Libyan shores since 2017. The plummeting number of sea crossings was due to many reasons, from the increasing pull backs operated by the Libyan Coastguard trained by the EU, to other bilateral agreements on migration management and security struck between EU States and Sahel countries like Niger, as well as off-the-record agreements with Libyan militias controlling embarkation points. Despite this decrease, the need for a trustworthy and stable neighbourhood was underscored in February by the Turkish decision to reopen the country’s borders to migration towards Europe. This leaves Libyan stability to be achieved with a toothless operation.

Second, from the security and defence side, debates over the adoption of a common European stance towards the Libyan crisis were overshadowed by migration-related concerns, yet again postponing uncomfortable discussions on the matter. Nevertheless, Europe’s scattered and wavering response, with Italy and France on different sides of the Sarraj-Haftar divide, was met with the resolute intervention of Russia and Turkey. The two States increasingly poured arms, advisors and mercenaries in the country and became linchpins of the conflict and its resolution. Without a common line of action, Europe remained sidelined during a major crisis looming in its neighbourhood and, as already mentioned, Irini alone will not suffice to address the situation.

A proposal that has made the rounds in political circles is to deploy Member States’ troops on the ground in Libya, through a potential CSDP mission, to reinforce Operation Irini’s mandate. Even if this line of action could sound appealing, to compensate for the lack of decisiveness of Irini, it would meet several major hindrances in the path towards implementation. First, and foremost, would arise the issue of legality. Security Council Resolution 1973, authorizing a military intervention in the Libyan civil war in 2011, was deemed a failure for several reasons (among which, States’ disregard for the prohibition of occupation). This, on its own, would make a similar experience unlikely to be replicated, and outright impossible when factoring in the presence of Russia in the Security Council.

The second set of issues to face such an endeavour is of technical nature. Finding an agreement on which troops to send, potential locations and rules of engagement would probably make decision making hell for Brussels. To make matters worse, the presence of international troops and personnel on the ground would constitute a further conundrum: how should European contingents handle engagement with the army of a NATO-allied country like Turkey?

Third, and last, such a deployment would boil down to a political agreement among Member States, which, as already mentioned, is not there at the moment. The splintered vision of European States on the conflict (that is, which side of the Libyan civil war should potentially be backed) would paralyze the discussions that lead to a mandate, with individual stakes prevailing over any entente. It would also create major diplomatic strains with other countries involved in Libya, such as Turkey, Russia and Egypt, with which both the EU and individual member States maintain political or economic relations.

Given all the obstacles, a military solution hardly looks like a viable option on the table, let alone a profitable one. What the EU is left with is Operation Irini which, if not the ultimate panacea for the crisis, is at least a step in the right direction toward making the European presence felt in Libya and try keeping arms outside of the country. What can help boost Irini’s significance is a common European political action, to be pursued at the level of the Council, with the aim of substantiating the UN roadmap through a ceasefire and rounds of negotiations among all sides of the conflict. Such a proposition could prove to be more attainable than the military option, and could even become the right forum for Member States to confront each other and settle their divergencies.


Cover photo from EUNAVFOR MED  twitter timeline.