EU Military in the Mediterranean: Mission accomplished

EUNAVFOR MED and Frontex now fly for Libyan Coast Guard

The European Union only wants to observe sea rescue operations off Libya from the air and no longer send its own ships. The warships involved in the EUNAVFOR MED military mission are therefore being withdrawn, while the operation is „strengthening surveillance by air assets“. With this decision, the EU Member States have temporarily settled a dispute with the government in Rome. Italy’s Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini does not want EUNAVFOR MED to let rescued persons come to Italy. The head of Lega is calling for their disembarkation in all the other states that take part in the mission with planes, ships or submarines. Since EUNAVFOR MED was founded, its ships have taken around 49,000 people on board. Almost all were disembarked in Italian ports.

EUNAVFOR MED’s core mission is „to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers“. However, because smugglers do not travel on the Mediterranean, the training of the Libyan coastguard and navy is the focus of EUNAVFOR MED’s „supporting task“.

The Italian Navy is leading EUNAVFOR MED and has sent an aircraft carrier to the central Mediterranean. A year ago, the headquarter set up there decided to place the warships involved only far away from Libya. Since then, the units have no longer been involved in any rescue operations. During the same period, the number of operations by Libyan authorities has risen sharply. In 2018, the Naval Coast Guard brought more than 13,000 people back to Libya, in the first two months of this year it was 800.

Circumnavigating international law

This means that EUNAVFOR MED’s essential mission has been accomplished: Circumnavigating international law. The European Convention on Human Rights prohibits EU member states from bringing refugees to a country where torture or other human rights violations are imminent. This principle of non-refoulement does not apply to Libyan authorities or private merchant ships.

The equipment and training of the Libyan coastguard remains a priority and will be continued in EUNAVFOR MED. Libya has a total of some 30 patrol boats and coastguard vessels, most of which come from the Italian Government. At present, however, only half of these vessels are operational, even in low seas, according to reports. France has therefore promised to supply a further six fully equipped patrol boats.

The training of the crews is largely carried out by Italian soldiers, the costs being borne by the European Union. To date, some 300 Libyans have been trained, allegedly including „training in search and rescue, seamanship, radio and language training, first aid, international humanitarian law, human rights and the law of the sea“.

Establishment of a control centre in Tripoli

It didn’t help, Libya’s coastguard is still considered highly unprofessional. The crews often take brutal action against fugitives and other helpers during a rescue at sea, and there is shooting again and again. Libyan units do not use rigid inflatable boats to rescue people from inflatable boats, daring manoeuvres lead to many deaths.

Libya has signed the International Convention on Maritime Rescue, but has never implemented its obligations. These include the designation of a sea rescue zone and a responsible maritime rescue centre (MRCC). It must be equipped with information technology and access to rescue equipment, be reachable at all times and communicate in English.

The establishment of such a control centre in Tripoli is therefore high on the agenda for EUNAVFOR MED. With Italian assistance, Libya declared responsibility for its own search and rescue zone in the summer and set up a makeshift situation centre, which is alerted to incidents via an information channel of the Italian military. The information comes from four European maritime reconnaissance aircraft, but also from military drones deployed by Italy in EUNAVFOR MED.

Special funding from Visegrad states

The European Union is spending around 42 million euros on the construction of the Libyan MRCC, and in a second stage the coastguard and also the Libyan Coastal Security will be upgraded with another 45 million euros. The unit is responsible for monitoring ports, beaches and territorial waters. A large part of the funds comes from the four Visegrad states. With this earmarked financing, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are protesting against the relocation mechanism for rescued persons supported by Germany.

Frontex is also to cooperate more closely with the Libyan coastguard. The official operational area of the border agency is the Italian sea rescue zone and is thus far away from Libya. But reconnaissance flights by a new „Multi-purpose Aerial Service“ from Frontex are also carried out in the so-called „pre-frontier area“ off African coasts. Until now, Frontex was not allowed to transmit information from these flights to Libyan authorities. This is changing with the new Frontex regulation.

Frontex area of activity extended to the southern Mediterranean

Frontex is to set up a „standing corps“ of up to 10,000 staff, which could also be deployed outside Europe. The Council and Parliament have rushed to agree on a first common position, details were finalised these days. The regulation contains a long chapter on cooperation with third countries. Frontex is already allowed to cooperate with neighbouring countries. This area of activity is now being extended to the southern Mediterranean. As things stand at present, the border agency is also to transmit „confidential security information“ to countries like Libya. It is planned that its coastguard will receive information from the EU border surveillance system EUROSUR, including images from drones or satellites.

The adoption of the Frontex Regulation is a top priority for the European Union and should take place before the European elections at the end of May. The Agency’s budget until 2027 amounts to a ludicrous 12 billion euros, plus 22 billion euros to help Member States secure and control their borders. Germany is the largest contributor to the EU’s financial coffers. This means that the Federal Government is directly responsible for building up Libya’s Coast Guard as a bouncer of the European Union and for the actually forbidden return of refugees.

Image: SCDBob, UAV Predator Italian Air Force, CC BY-SA 2.5

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.