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NATO ships in the Aegean Sea. Thank you Angela!

A NATO ship plotting its course in the Mediterranean (credit: NATO / Active Endeavour)
A NATO ship plotting its course in the Mediterranean (credit: NATO / Active Endeavour)

(B2) Refugees and smugglers will be able to say thank you to Angela Merkel (German Chancellor), Ahmet Davutoğlu (Turkish Prime Minister) and NATO. They will now have on their doorstep not only entry into the Schengen area but a sort of sea bridge to Europe. NATO assistance.

The decision taken today by the Defense Ministers of the Atlantic Alliance, meeting in Brussels, to launch a maritime mission in the Aegean Sea, off the Turkish coast, is certainly interesting. But it risks having the opposite effect to that sought and becoming a real vacuum cleaner for migrants.

An admission of European weakness

The stated objective — to help secure Turkish borders and come to the aid of refugees and migrants — is laudable. There aren't too many ships in the area, actually. The idea briefly mentioned by Jean-Claude Juncker of having joint Greek-Turkish patrols fizzled out. While the Frontex agency's call for more maritime resources in the area did not really meet the expected numbers. At the same time, the passages do not decrease.

However, we cannot help but think that the call for NATO resembles an admission of generalized weakness on the part of Europeans, incapable of having a minimum of solidarity and discipline without the American umbrella, and of having a little firmness compared to Ankara.

Multiple reasons for commitment, not all admissible…

However, we must not deceive ourselves. If for Germany and many European countries it is important to stop the flow of refugees and migrants as soon as possible. If for Greece it is important to have more notable assistance than that given by the Europeans, there are other, more geopolitical reasons for such a deployment.

Turkey has also been seeking to involve the Alliance more in the protection of its borders and in the latent conflict it has with the Syrian government for several years. Russian engagement, which has become more operational in recent months in Syria (of the external operation type and not just support in terms of advice and munitions), was not enough to convince its partners to deliberately side with it. The refugee crisis today provides a good opportunity for everyone to move forward.

The Atlantic Alliance has also been thinking about relaunching its maritime operation in the Mediterranean for a long time, Active Endeavor, established since the attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001, which was looking for a second wind. Its maritime presence at sea via the permanent maritime groups (SNMG*) lacked a more political objective. To this must be added the Russian dynamic, now more aggressive in the east, in Ukraine and in the Caucasus. The maritime reinforcement in the Eastern Mediterranean would thus be the maritime versus the land reinforcement decided today by NATO and which will be endorsed at the Warsaw summit.

Many problems to solve

The hardest part begins now. The NATO navy will face the same problems as other current deployments, from the EU in the Mediterranean to NATO in the Indian Ocean. But with an additional dimension: the waters of the Aegean Sea are often territorial waters – Greek or Turkish. They create obligations or difficulties just as important as action on the high seas.

What to do if refugees dock on a NATO ship? How will sea rescue (SAR) be organized? Will the “castaways” be turned back and returned to Türkiye? Where will they be welcomed? Will the “shipwrecked” have the right to submit a request for asylum directly on board these ships to the flag State? Etc.

A whole series of questions will also arise about the prosecution of human traffickers. How to apprehend traffickers? And who translates them to? Under the aegis of which law? Who will provide the first elements of instruction? Will they comply with the usual human rights criteria?

Legal questions are often superimposed on more political or even media questions. Above all, what will happen when a mother or a child clings on so as not to be sent back to Turkey? Will we be able to return refugees who say they are Kurds and are persecuted in Turkey to Turkey? Who will process these requests, etc.?

All these questions will be all the more crucial since certain pavilions (the German pavilion, etc.) are likely to be more popular than others and... despite everything, the weight of history remains. I can't imagine the photo of a German sailor forced to turn back a refugee boat to Türkiye...

A truly effective mission?

Like a seasoned diplomat from a NATO member country, we can therefore question the appropriateness and effectiveness of such a mission. If it is a question of preventing the departure of migrants. How would this be easier than control on dry land? How would NATO maritime patrols differ from Mare Nostrum, which was recognized as a mistake… »

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

(*) SNMG 2 (Standing NATO Maritime Group) which is under German command is currently in the area.

Read also: A German-Turkish initiative. Let NATO get involved in monitoring migration

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).