Blog AnalysisMediterranean seaMissions Operations

EU operation in the Mediterranean. True, false. To twist the neck of a few cuckoos

HelicoSarForbinExercise@Def150527
(credit: DICOD/EMA)

(BRUSSELS2) The next military naval operation of the European Union in the Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med) gives rise to a series of observations and comments which sometimes have only a very distant connection with reality and seem more like decoys, or even whims. How to see clearly?

Why hunt the traffickers?

Until now, Europeans have not dared to tackle traffickers head-on. Despite some efforts, they had relatively notable peace and could go about their business as they pleased. Looking for the “profiteers” of the system is not really abnormal. This won't solve everything, but it's a start. This operation does not prevent, on the contrary, more determined action by the European Union in terms of solidarity with the countries most affected by immigration, from reviewing or not reviewing the asylum policy of the 28.

Won't the effect just lead to moving traffic ?

It’s a risk, for sure. Some traffickers will prefer other routes. But already without operation, the routes are diversifying. The real question then is: is doing nothing better? A European migration expert recently told me: previously we had a transfer between the sea route (Libya/Italy) and the land route (Turkey-Bulgaria/Greece), today this is no longer the case, we see the traffic increase on both roads…

Why a military operation?

In fact, it is not strictly speaking a military operation but rather aa police operation at sea, with military means. The use of military means is simply required for a series of reasons. One is simply operational. Only the navies have resources adapted to the high seas, both powerful and multimodal, capable of accommodating a large number of shipwreck victims as well as ensuring the protection of other ships. The second is the risk involved. The traffickers are not children at heart and have already used weapons of war to secure their catch. The third is simply legal. The law of the sea only authorizes the “right of visit” (= search) to “warships” (and vessels equipped with public force) against suspicious vessels (*). Finally, and this should not be overlooked in these times of economic crisis, there is a question of budgetary and capacity expediency. Only the navies have a significant capacity that can be dispatched, with short notice. And the operation is then supported by… the defense budget.

Can we act without a United Nations mandate in territorial waters?

No. It's impossible. It is not the Europeans who are going to start playing this game. All States also put this condition on the table to act. And many of them add that an agreement is required from the Libyan government, or even from both Libyan governments. Without a United Nations resolution, the operation will take place but without entering territorial waters (the same goes for the ships of Operation Triton, for example). NB: Except in cases of extreme emergency, to go to the rescue of a ship in distress. The law of the sea (and the custom of seafarers which is such a strong obligation) requires coming to the aid of any ship in distress.

…and on the high seas?

The issue is complex from a legal point of view. Everything depends on the action taken, the vessel targeted (its flag), the characterization of the facts (or the suspicion of the facts). But from a general point of view, without an explicit mandate from the United Nations, the operation will be more complicated and more limited. Moving to phase 2bis (searching and arresting vessels carrying other flags) will therefore not be possible (unless agreed with the flag State).

Are we going to hit ships full of migrants ?

Pure idiocy! The European objective is to neutralize the ships, therefore making them unfit to be reused, once emptied of their migrants. This is already happening, discreetly. The German navy indicates in particular that it regularly destroys all vessels (zodiac, fishing boat, etc.) once the transfer of all migrants has been assured (read in particular: Off the coast of Libya, European navies unite to save more than 4000 migrants from the waters).

Can we / will we hit ships near the Libyan coast?

The Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, was the first to launch the idea of ​​striking on the Libyan coast, or even using drones. It was in the United States during his visit to the White House and to a Washington think tank. Since then, this idea has polluted the debates. But we are more in the psychological threat than in reality. It must be understood that, even with authorization from the United Nations, this is a risky operation. The Libyan coast is not, from this point of view, the Somali coast, where a helicopter firing operation was possible without too much risk. We can do this with helicopters, as during the operation in Libya in 2011, but this requires serious military and political preparation, in particular to ensure that no anti-aircraft defense, or even RPG fire, will target the enemy. helicopter flying at low speed. It is a military technique that very few countries have actually mastered and that even fewer governments are ready to provide. To date, two States are capable of carrying out this type of mission – France and the United Kingdom – and to a lesser extent Spain or Italy. And only one or two are capable of assuming political risk (France, Italy). As for armed drones, it's simple, Europe doesn't really have them or at least doesn't really have the possibility of using them solo. In the end, I don't see the EU carrying out this type of mission with this kind of danger.

Why not act in the territorial waters of the Member States?

A military operation carried out under the CSDP does not normally have any capacity for action on the territory of a Member State (= territorial waters normally included). This is the role of national authorities, if necessary aided by resources from other Member States, either bilaterally or through the coordination of resources carried out by the European agency Frontex.

Will this operation be effective?

Many commentators are very pessimistic. Personally, I have some doubts about this atmosphere of doubt. I had seen the same very skeptical comments, even completely opposed, at the start of the operation in Chad (a guaranteed failure according to some experts) or for the anti-piracy operation on which not many people bet a kopeck . Today these two operations have proven, each in their own way, a certain success. The simple presence of military ships in certain waters should “calm down” some traffickers a little and force them either to look for other modes of crossing, or to look for other, more profitable modes.

Can we expect quick results?

No. It's a reality. The operation could be launched in June, at least in phase 1 if there are no obstacles at European level. But it will only reach its full operational capacity towards the end of August, at the end of summer. Or at the end of the most difficult season in terms of migration. We are thus more in the installation of the operation over time. The real effect will, therefore, be verified, initially, in the fall for the short term, and next year or even the following year, for the medium-term effect... There is no point in hoping above all effect.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

(*) Article 110 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Right of access

1. Except in cases where the intervention proceeds from powers conferred by treaty, a warship which encounters a foreign ship on the high seas, other than a ship enjoying the immunity provided for in articles 95 and 96, may not board only if he has serious reason to suspect that this vessel:

  • (a) engages in piracy;
  • (b) engages in the transportation of slaves;
  • (c) is used for unauthorized emissions, the flag State of the warship having jurisdiction under article 109;
  • (d) is without nationality; Where
  • (e) has in reality the same nationality as the warship, although it flies a foreign flag or refuses to fly its flag.

2. In the cases referred to in paragraph 1, the warship may verify the titles authorizing the flying of the flag. To this end, he may dispatch a boat, under the command of an officer, to the suspect vessel. If, after checking the documents, suspicions remain, he may continue the examination on board the ship, acting with all possible consideration. (…)

4. These provisions apply mutatis mutandis to military aircraft.

5. These provisions also apply to all other duly authorized vessels or aircraft bearing external markings clearly indicating that they are assigned to a public service.

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).