Warships and Fishing Boats: EU’s ‘EUNAVFOR Med’ Libya Operation

Toby Fenton

HMS Dragon crossing the setting sun during operations in the Middle East – L(Phot) Dave Jenkins via Defence Imagery

HMS Dragon crossing the setting sun during operations in the Middle East – L(Phot) Dave Jenkins via Defence Imagery

The EU’s May 18th decision to use military force to tackle the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is a significant development. The decision comes at a time of increasing pressure on Europe to act in the face of the largest wave of migration for over half a century, with hundreds of migrants having lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. As the commencement of the yearlong military action – under the catchy operational name ‘EUNAVFOR Med’ – nears, there is much cause for scepticism regarding the EU’s plan

Central to the EU plan is the targeting and sinking of vessels used for transporting migrants across the Mediterranean, an incredibly high number of which depart from Libya’s shores. This is where the first problem lies. The vessels used for smuggling purposes are usually indistinguishable from civilian boats employed for legal purposes (such as fishing and licit trade). EU forces may therefore find the identification of illicit vessels a problematic exercise in itself. It is also reasonable to assume that during military operations, civilian causalities are likely to occur. Libyan ambassador to the UN Ibrahim Dabbashi conveyed that his government is anxious to know “how they [EU forces] can distinguish between the fishers’ boats and the traffickers’ boats.” Not very well, apparently: an internal EU document warns that there exists “a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.” Moreover, in the event of the destruction of legal civilian fishing vessels, local fisherman may soon seek to engage with illicit traffickers out of basic economic necessity.

While attempting decisive action on the migrant crisis, the EU could also be entering dangerous legal and operational territory. The application of military force within Libyan territorial waters – that is, within the territorial borders of the Libyan state – would arguably constitute a breach of that country’s sovereignty. The UN Charter forbids the use of military force against the territory of any state – which de facto includes its territorial waters – unless such action is conducted in self-defence – which cannot realistically apply in the context of the migrant crisis – or authorised by the UN Security Council. Additionally, in practice, European warships in the Mediterranean are permitted to target vessels used for smuggling, but only if the vessels’ destruction is permitted by the country whose flag they fly or if they fly no flag at all. The UN mandate that the EU is seeking would, at least from an international legal perspective, mostly override both sets of restrictions. Nevertheless, the Libyan governments – for there are two of them – have not (at the time of writing) granted the EU permission to target Libyan vessels; officials from both governments resolutely oppose and have denounced such action. International legal opinion may in fact allow that the Libyan government would be within its UN-mandated self-defence rights to militarily engage EU forces targeting Libya vessels – more so if such forces strike vessels sitting on Libyan territorial water. In the extreme, this could be a serious escalation waiting to happen

EU Foreign Affairs Ministers meet on 16 March 2015 in Brussels to discuss EU-Africa relations, the crisis in Libya and the EU's migration challenges, and to prepare for the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga.

EU Foreign Affairs Ministers meet on 16 March 2015 in Brussels to discuss EU-Africa relations, the crisis in Libya and the EU’s migration challenges, and to prepare for the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga – EEAS via Flickr

Yet while Libya’s government(s) might be expected to refrain from engaging EU forces, the same cannot reasonably be said for armed non-state actors. There remains the prospect of EU forces coming under fire from a range of militias, Islamist militants, and groups affiliated with the Islamic State (the latter of which have been establishing an increasing presence in Libya). Should EU warships, aircraft or other assets be attacked in this fashion, the EU may find itself becoming drawn into a more long-term engagement; and the closer EU military forces get to the Libyan mainland and the more intense the operation, the potentially more attractive a target these forces provide for armed groups throughout the region. EU officials may also decide, despite some declarations to the contrary, to actively escalate their military operations if initial measures fail to produce the desired outcomes. The EU’s strategy paper indeed pointed to the possible use of “a broad range of air, maritime and land capabilities” that may include “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units.” Reinforcing the EU’s official optimism about the efficacy of a purely offshore operation, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has repeatedly affirmed that there would be no EU troops deployed on Libyan soil. Yet citing the threat of terrorist groups, armed militias and heavy weapons emplacements, the EU strategy document further alluded to a boots-on-the-ground scenario, pointing out that “action taken ashore could be undertaken in a hostile environment.” The internal EU document mentioned earlier envisages a possible “presence ashore” by military forces to destroy “smuggling-enabling assets (e.g. boats, fuel dumps, embarkation facilities).” One hopes the EU’s application of limited targeted military force using seaborne and airborne forces works out as intended, and that a ground force will not be required.


Implementation concerns aside, the EU plan arguably embodies an attempt to provide an immediate solution to what are certainly the symptoms of a much deeper and broader problem. The desire of Libyan migrants to attempt to flee their country and brave the often-fatal Mediterranean crossing should be understood within the context of Libya’s high level of instability. Following the Arab Spring-born civil war, NATO intervention in 2011, and the resulting collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Libya descended into chaos. (With several of its members having played key roles in the 2011 NATO intervention, and with Libya sitting right on Europe’s southern flank, it is remarkable that the EU did not then pursue efforts to help establish law and order and a capable government; post-bellum stabilisation and pacification operations are arguably a core element of any ‘just’ war). The country is divided politically in two, with an elected, internationally recognised government based in Tobruk (and unofficially backed by the UAE and Egypt) competing against an unelected, Islamist-led government based in the capital Tripoli (and unofficially backed by Qatar and Turkey). Libya is rife with often-fractious armed groups possessing a range of aspirations and loyalties; some of these groups are involved in the smuggling trade. Post-war, the country has also become awash with small arms and light weapons, and is a veritable regional arms-trade hub; local actors are the main beneficiaries, but Libyan weapons also fuel conflicts in West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East. The country’s weak (or absent) central authority, mostly impotent security apparatus, devastated socio-political fabric, and infamously porous and uncontrolled borders make the movement of weapons and militias all the easier. Libya is fundamentally ill equipped and too weak as a state to tackle its illicit smuggling problem.

As one example, Libyan coastguard authorities suffer from a basic lack of funding and material resources, not to mention irregular and delayed salary payments. According to one coastguard based in the Mediterranean port city of Zuwara, “if it [the EU] really wants to stop smuggling from Zuwara, they need to bring us the tools to this office… We need serious tools, boats, proper patrols, a committee to train us.” Competing militias and armed factions place additional pressures on already-strained security forces and divert the latter’s attention away from combatting the smuggling trade. Furthermore, those fleeing from the Libyan coast are not only Libyan nationals, but herald from places of high instability and/or conflict further afield, such as Eritrea, Mali, Somalia, Palestine, and especially Syria. European officials ought to consider how to address the underlying causes of the migration wave – causes that include (non-exhaustively) conflict, economic depravation, lack of resources, lack of life opportunity, and government repression and oppression. As a recent article in Future Foreign Policy put it, “[f]or an effective strategy to be implemented… European leaders must address the key structural forces driving instability in North Africa.” Until these ‘root causes’ are addressed, deploying warships to destroy Libyan fishing boats may not prove to be the answer the EU hopes it is. It must be mentioned here that Mrs Mogherini has indeed clearly stated that “not one single action will be effective alone,” and that the EU must pursue a “comprehensive approach” to the migrant crisis involving “working on the root causes, in partnership with our partners in the African Union and in the Arab world, and in particular working on poverty, wars, crises. And dismantling the criminal networks that are smuggling and trafficking people.” If military action is not to have been in vain, the EU must fully operationalise the non-military rhetoric of this comprehensive approach, although it is uncertain how long the momentum and political will to do so will remain.

Finally, as the commencement of the operation nears, it is important to consider what this suggests about the nature of the Union in a foreign policy sense. Particularly notable is the doggedness and borderline unilateralism with which EU officials have pushed forward their plan. Although concerted action has been a long time coming considering the string of tragedies in the Mediterranean, it has been full steam ahead once the plan for a military solution was decided upon. While UN authorisation is effectively required to legalise the action, Mrs Mogherini has conveyed that the EU would nevertheless be prepared and willing to proceed with military action regardless of whether the UN granted a mandate to do so; such action would thus be likely to breach international law (perhaps being ‘illegal but legitimate’, à la Kosovo). And it would seem the construction of the EU’s plan included little consultation with the very country at the centre of the crisis, with Libyan ambassador to the UN Ibrahim Dabbashi complaining the EU “left us in the dark about what their intentions are, what kind of military actions they are going to take in our territorial waters…” As mention earlier, both the Tobruk-based and Tripoli-based governments allege their exclusion from the planning process too.

Furthermore, it is particularly important that the EU’s decision to undertake a joint military operation off its southern flank could represent a further element in the some view as the evolution towards a coherent intra-European military apparatus or arrangement. Germany is arguably near the centre of this: despite her country’s opposition to the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently made clear her support for the notion of a “European army or defence union”, calling it the “logical consequence of European integration.” Germany is also one of the key partners agitating for the ‘Eurohawk’ project – the development of a European military drone capability. There are substantial counter-pressures within Europe of course; some European countries, such as the UK, strongly oppose the very idea of an allegedly state sovereignty-depriving EU military. Nevertheless, the upcoming EU anti-smuggling operation will undoubtedly constitute an important demonstration of what an exclusively ‘European’ military operation (as distinct from European participation within a NATO or US-led campaign) looks like, from inception to completion – how it is planned, how it is operationalised and conducted, how European leaders coordinate and distribute activities and areas of operation, and how it is brought to a close.

The EU’s plan for military action to combat the smuggling trade ferrying desperate people on often-fatal journeys across the Mediterranean may prove to be more the product of a perceived requirement for immediate action – to ‘do something now’ – rather than the outcome of a reasoned and well thought-out strategy. On the other hand, if the EU operation is successful – employing precision targeting to effectively halt the migrant crisis while causing little to no collateral damage and requiring no comprehensive deployment of forces (including ground troops) – this could provide welcome breathing room in which to develop a long term strategy. Still, one hopes that a successful operation and outcome will not be interpreted as an automatic vindication of the future application of reactive, ‘hard’ military solutions to similar problems – problems that may also in fact be the symptoms of much deeper and more complex structural issues.


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