EU to use revamped ‘Operation Sophia’ to enforce Libyan arms embargo

Italian patrol boats off Lampedusa harbour, Italy. EPA-EFE/ELIO DESIDERIO

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EU foreign minister decided this week to revive a maritime surveillance mission in the Mediterranean to enforce a potential cease-fire in Libya and a UN arms embargo against the country’s warring parties. Meanwhile, the bloc is scrambling to avoid being drawn into a conflict that threatens to destabilise the whole of the Mediterranean.

The decision came after world powers pledged to end military support for the parties in Libya’s civil war and uphold the existing UN arms embargo at the Berlin Conference on the Libya crisis on Sunday.

So far, there has been no legally binding ceasefire agreement between rebel commander Khalifa Haftar and Libya’s internationally recognised government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. Meanwhile, external actors like Turkey, Russia, Egypt and France have pledged to stop their interference into the Libyan conflict, which has turned into a proxy war.

There had been talk of setting up a European military mission to monitor any ceasefire, but ministers arriving in Brussels did not explain what such a mission would mean in practice.

The EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell spoke about the possibility of the EU sending troops to Libya to enforce a potential ceasefire on the ground.

“It’s clear that the arms embargo requires high-level control and if you want to keep the ceasefire alive someone has to monitor it,” Borrell reiterated upon arrival at the meeting in Brussels.

Asked about the next steps following the Berlin Conference on Libya, he stressed that “it is clear that the arms embargo requires a level of control and if you want to keep the ceasefire alive, someone has to monitor it. United Nations, African Union, or the European Union, someone has to do it.”

“We cannot let the ceasefire work by itself,” Borrell added.

Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias last week said that Greece was ready to help in Libya “with forces” to help monitor the ceasefire and the arms embargo. “All of this is a contribution to the future of the Libyan people. We want it to be a modern democratic country”.

According to the EU treaties, it is up to EU foreign ministers to decide on the deployment of EU military missions. But so far, the EU28 had been cautious about considering having any troops in Libya.

Until there is a tangible ceasefire to monitor, EU foreign ministers discussed plans for an EU force to monitor the sea and air arms embargo off the coast of Libya, seeking a way to revive the Rome-based Operation Sophia (EUNAVFOR).

Operation Sophia was set up in 2015 to combat people smugglers operating from the Libyan coast and to also enforce a UN arms embargo on the warring parties. It was suspended as a naval mission in March 2019, after Italy objected to recused migrants being landed in its ports, and is now limited to aerial surveillance.


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