(B2 – exclusive) The EU military operation in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) will have a change in leadership by the end of the week. A decision that today falls flat at a time where renewal is on the agenda. Today the question on everyone’s lips is : will Italy keep the command of the operation beyond March?

The command room of the Spanish ship Cantabria (credit : Eunavfor Med 2017)

The ambassadors of the political and security committee must this Wednesday (February 19) validate the appointment of a new head of Operation Sophia (EUNAVFOR Med) to combat trafficking in the Mediterranean.

A planned Italian relay

Vice-Admiral Enrico Credendino. This as of Friday (February 21). The admiral, who has presided over the destinies of the operation from the start, is finishing his military career and could be approached to exercise other responsibilities in the months to come…. An official ceremony for the handover of the command of the operation is also planned in Rome on Friday.

A desire for renewal

This change was planned long before the Austro-Hungarian controversy and veto over the new operation broke out (as our loyal readers already know, read Carnet 07.02.2020). Therefore today, it falls somewhat flat. This nomination in itself is a bit odd, because all the parameters of the EUNAVFOR Med operation must be reviewed. Political pressures demand it. The operation plan, the rules of engagement, the area of ​​operation will be reviewed. The name of the operation will be changed. In this maelstrom of renewal, the question of changing the headquarters (based in Rome) or the command of the operation, which belongs to the Italians, arises in a very concrete way.

… which could take away the new chief

Everyone wonders: will the admiral just have a go for a few weeks? The question is really asked, as confirmed to us by several diplomatic and military sources. The EEAS spokesperson did not deny this. “The appointment is [indeed] for Operation Sophia” said Virginie Battu during the midday press briefing, when questioned by B2 on Tuesday (February 18). “In the elements of the political agreement – reached yesterday between the ministers (read: Don’t call me anymore Sophia! The key points of the new EU operation in the Mediterranean) -, we no longer talk about Operation Sophia. Beyond the command, [several points must be reviewed], starting with the mandate ». And to add: “Operation Sophia runs until the end of March. I will not prejudge the rest. We are indeed talking about a new operation.

Conclusion: a (maybe) necessary change

It seems difficult for Italy to keep both the headquarters based in Rome and the command of the operation.

A very political question

It would be the opposite of desired effect in political matters, which consists in making a clean sweep of the past in order to start from scratch a “new operation“. Even if everyone is aware that the word ‘new’ is mostly there to justify the slight reversal of their governments to the Austrian and Hungarian public opinion especially but also to the Italian, changes other than cosmetic ones are necessary.

Changing HQ: more delicate in a short time

Changing the headquarters requires time – if only to put the systems in place at the technical level. Now if we ask the military, they can do it quickly, with two fingers on their sailor’s hat. Two countries require this ability to adapt, in my opinion: 1 ° Spain, which already has a headquarters dedicated to a maritime operation, in Rota (read: Au QG de l’opération anti-piraterie Atalanta à Rota (Cadiz)). 2 ° France, which can quickly gain strength. Two other headquarters exist in the European Union: Potsdam in Germany and Larrissa in Greece, but the time allowed to build up a HQ seems too short. In order to start at the end of March, arrangements should already have been made today.

Changing the operation commander: why not 

The remaining possibility is the change of commander. This is the easiest one symbolically and it is in this direction that all eyes are turned. In this area, several countries could claim the title: Spain or Greece for example (which has no operation command), or even Germany or France. And, why not a woman commander for the operation. That would really be a change, right?

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

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).