Operation Sophia, EUBAM Rafah and Libya… The EU has to learn to shut down the missions that have become useless

(B2) Common security and defence missions and operations are today somewhat neglected by the European Union’s foreign policy (CFSP). They receive little attention today from European officials. Some missions and operations are no longer effective or have reached the end of their possibilities. It’s time to learn from it and dare to shut them down! 

Without any activity, the sailors of Operation Sophia are reduced to doing exercises (credit : EUNAVFOR Med / Sophia)

Healthy cut

Instead of 16 missions/operations today, the EU could have, in the short-term, 7 missions with the same efficiency. Of course, these shutdowns would bring home a inglorious report, but it is not the number that matters or a pin on the map. What is vital is what these missions ‘deliver’ in terms of results/costs ratio in relation to their primary objective: stabilisation.

Three missions/operations that should be shut down

According to our own analysis, three missions/operations (at least) should be shut down, immediately, because they do not fulfil the defined minimum criteria anymore or simply do not have the means to take on their tasks.

EUNAVFOR Med/Sophia (Rome)

The presupposition of departure of this military maritime operation created in 2015 – fighting against human trafficking as close as possible to the Libyan coast – was never achieved. Europeans never obtained from the Libyans the power to act in their territorial waters or their coast (and they put little pressure for it). The political consensus that presided the existence of it does not exist anymore today : Italy no longer wants to welcome people rescued at sea and no other country wants to take on the task. One by one, the many contributors (Belgium, United Kingdom, Germany,…) have withdrawn to the point that Operation Sophia does not currently have a minimal presence at sea to perform these missions: a single frigate (Italian) assures a minimum service at sea, with another (French) as backup from time to time (read: Le FS Jacoubet dans l’opération Sophia : pour briser la solitude italienne ?).

It is not so much that the operation has totally failed. It’s just that the context has changed. The flow of migrants from Libya to Italy is no longer at the peak reached in the years 2015-2016. It has returned to a ‘normal’ situation; attention is focused more on Spain, Greece or the Balkans. In a way, the job is done. The only task that can be retained — the training of Libyan coastguards and sailors — may well be performed by a lighter missions (such as a EUTM one).

EUBAM Libya (Tunis/Tripoli)

This civilian mission born in the aftermath of 2011 and supposed to help the Libyans to strengthen their borders, has never really been able to take off. If it has managed to prove its usefulness by doing feasibility studies, by commuting with officials… it remains rather a meagre result for a formidable cost: around 62 million euros for 18 months. Honestly, two or three good advisers to the EU delegation in Libya would do exactly the same work.

EUBAM Rafah (Tel Aviv)

This civilian mission, one of the oldest of the EU (created 14 years ago), had for objective to serve as an honest observer at the Rafah border post. The emergence of Hamas in the Gaza Strip more than ten years ago forced the mission to remain on the passenger seat of the action. Despite several hopes or attempts, no operational recovery could take place. The missions is reduced to a little advice or planning. Cost: 2 million euros per year. It is expensive for a task that could be taken up by the EU delegation in Tel Aviv.

Two missions whose efficiency is in question

One can also wonder about the real effectiveness of EUCAP Somalia, based in Mogadishu. Its tasks (strengthening maritime security) could be transfered to an EU anti-piracy operation or merged with those of EUTM Somalia, the military training operation which also suffers from a non-assumed understaffing. As for the EUAM Iraq advisory mission based in Baghdad and launched in 2017, it is struggling to show any results.

Compared to their results, these two missions have a quite substantial budget: 66 million for 2 years for EUCAP Somalia and 65 million euros for 18 months for EUAM Iraq (read: Les missions et opérations de la PSDC. Budget, personnel, commandement… ). It is necessary in the medium term to consider their closure.

Two missions are being phased out

Finally two missions are said to be in ‘phasing out’ state, that is to say in the process of transferring over their file, but it seems as if their closure keeps deferred over time: EULEX Kosovo (read: La mission EULEX Kosovo en voie de fermeture) or EUPOL Copps Palestine which is now blocked in its development by the Palestinian blockade on reforms. It is necessary to speed up the transfer to other structures.

Mission under the political radar

The CSDP missions and operations receive very little attention today from European officials. At best, it’s a nuisance, at worst a burden. The dynamic that has prevailed in recent years has been broken by a lack of voluntarism in Brussels as well as in the Member States. It’s undeniable.

Few launched missions and operations

In five years, despite an enthusiasm that cannot be denied, Federica Mogherini has a very weak record in terms of operations. Under her mandate, only three military missions and operations were launched: EUNAVFOR Med / Sophia in 2015, EUTM Rca in 2015-2016 and EUAM Iraq in 2017 (1). This represents the slowest pace of a High Representative mandate. Even under Lady Ashton, whom we did criticise, the record was more glorious with six civilian missions and two military operations-missions prepared or launched.

Few initiatives

We cannot put this meager balance sheet solely on the account of the Member States. Few initiatives have been prepared or launched. According to our information, there is nothing in the works: neither on the training of the security or military forces in Ukraine (just advisory), nor on supporting Barkhane, nor on an observation force in Colombia, etc.

The leaders of the missions skulk around

In order not to make any waves, the missions and operations are ‘boxed’. The heads of mission and operations have received informal instructions to communicate at a minimum at European level. For more than two years now, the heads of mission and operations have been skulking around when they pass through Brussels. There is no longer a press point, no more public reports from the heads of missions/operations to the European press, zero visits or press trips on the ground. Interviews are parsimoniously granted. The appearance of these officials in front of parliamentary committees is rare… while the various heads of NATO missions are seen there regularly. A paradox…

A CSDP ‘fatigue’?

The High Representative is not the sole responsible for this evolution. The common security and defence policy (CSDP) does not garner a lot of attention or dynamic from the Member States anymore.

France no longer believes in it

France, which has been one of the main drivers of a good majority of CSDP missions and operations in the past “no longer believes” in it. It’s not the only one. The reasons are multiple and deserve to be deciphered. We can cite at least five: the lack of solidarity on Mali, the refocusing on NATO, the lack of rigour of certain missions and operations, the problems encountered by several high ranking French officers, and an imperceptible feeling of ‘disappropriation’.

Neither do the others

Other countries, such as Belgium, which has been a significant ‘piece’ of the CSDP, have also lost their faith, but for other reasons, of political priorities. Germany is not really a driving force anymore. Not in the way it could have been before (for Afghanistan for example). Italy is in a retreat position. Etc. However, without a ‘push’ from a Member State, it is difficult to do a mission.

The trend towards conservatism

Everyone — Member States as well as the structure of the EEAS, the High Representative — knows the situation. However, everyone is reluctant to ‘close’ a mission or operation. Sometimes, there are understandable reasons: the risk of instability remains latent and/or the operation responds to a desire by several countries to remain present (EUFOR Althea, EUNAVFOR Atalanta), or the mission is part of an international agreement of pacification (EUMM Georgia). Sometimes there are no real reasons, other than the tendency to keep acquired positions, the desire to keep a certain number of anchor points in certain countries… like an open position.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Read also :

  1. While the EUCAP Sahel Mali mission was launched in January 2015, all the preparation was already completed. It cannot be put on the track record of the current High representative.

Nicolas Gros-Verheyde

Rédacteur en chef du site B2. Diplômé en droit européen de l'université Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne et auditeur 65e session IHEDN (Institut des hautes études de la défense nationale. Journaliste depuis 1989, fonde B2 - Bruxelles2 en 2008. Correspondant UE/OTAN à Bruxelles pour Sud-Ouest (auparavant Ouest-France et France-Soir).