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The European Power: operation Sophia in and within UN and NATO

On 6 June 2016, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR), asked to adopt a resolution on authorising Operation Sophia to enforce the UN embargo on the high seas, off the coast of Libya, during her speech at the UN Security Council. A few days prior, NATO Foreign Ministers met in cooperation with the European Union (EU) in Brussels, where the HR underlined the importance of collaboration with NATO in the Aegean Sea, looking at ways in which EU could work together with the Alliance to support the Operation Sophia in the Central Mediterranean. This close collaboration with NATO, and the achievement of the Security Council resolution 2292 (14 June 2016) about the arms embargo in Libya, shows the EU strong impact inside the two international organisations (IOs). This article will provide an explication about the EU role inside the two IOs, how it can affect their policies, and what the EU will do in the Central Mediterranean on the high sea, off the coast of Libya.

Theoretical approach

Hanna Ojanen, Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence on European Politics and European-Russian Relations School of Management at the University of Tampere, provides a comprehensive discussion of all aspects of the European Union presence in International Organisations (IOs). In her article “The EU as a Security Actor: in and with the UN and NATO”, she seeks to explore both the political and institutional implications of the EU’s interaction with IOs and the effect of the EU’s presence on the functioning of the respective IOs.

Hanna Ojanen examines the EU actorness in and within the UN, highlighting how the two organisations depends each others. The EU in the UN is a unique actor. Firstly, because the Copenhagen Report (1973) states that EU member states “will seek common positions in regard to important questions dealt by major international organisations”, and secondly, this is because the EU is the most important financial contributor of the UN. In her opinion, these two factors allow the EU to be an effective leader in the UN decision-making process. The EU is considered a unique actor in the UN because it is:

  • An inflexible negotiator: when internal EU agreement has been reached, it is impossible to negotiate on the EU position with third states;
  • Over-represented: 2 of 5 permanent members are European countries;
  • Ambivalent: the EU can act either as an actor or as a group of counties.

In the context of the European missions, the UN started to help and support the EU in order to promote the international norms shared by both the institutions. The UN benefits from this cooperation, and the EU gained legitimacy from this form of collaboration. Nevertheless, the EU quests for autonomy: as a military power it would like use its resources differently from what the UN may propose. For this reason, during the last years, the EU invested its resources to collaborate with NATO.

The EU-NATO partnership started in 2003, thanks to “Berlin Plus” Agreement. It includes partnership, mutual reinforcing, recognition of their different nature, effective mutual consultation, dialogue, cooperation and transparency. As a result of this relationship, NATO has had a fundamental impact on the EU’s institutional design, policies and experience in crisis management. As well, the EU has made a significant contribution to the shaping of NATO’s identity as a norm exporter. Inside NATO, the UE’s power is linked to its financial contribution.

These forms of relationships can be seen as an evolution of EU actorness. In fact, the EU has gradually moved to becoming an actor in its own right. Put together, these forms of interactions constitute a setting form which the specificities of the EU emerge, in particular its supranational and multifunctional character.

Ian Lesser, senior director for Foreign Policy at the “German Marshall Fund of the United States” (GMF), in his article “NATO looks South”, analyses the Alliance political approach about migration crisis. On 11 February 2016, NATO Defence Ministers agreed that NATO will provide support to assist with the refugee and migrant crisis. The goal of this is to participate in the international efforts to stop the illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean. NATO decided to act after the German, Turkish and Greece request, in order to manage migration flows in the East part of Europe. According to Ian Lesser, NATO intervention could be considered an important symbolic step for the EU as power which showed its political weakness. Sure enough, the EU seemed (and seems) unable to act efficiently. The deployment includes ships from Germany, Canada, Greece, and Turkey. NATO mission is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats, but about contributing critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.

Now, the question is “Why does NATO look south?”. NATO was founded as a defensive institution, recognized for its military vocation, and not for humanitarian tasks. There are multiple factors which could explain NATO attention to South. First, the problem of hybrid threats, which represent a new challenge for the Alliance – the growth of migration flows, strongly linked to both civil war in Syria and the enlargement of the Islamic State, is considered as a threat that can be dealt with political, social and economic tools. The real problems are the events that cause the growth of migration flows. In fact, the second factor that explains NATO attention to South is the durable instability in the migrants’ countries of origin. The instability is the first cause both of the ISIL expansion, not only in Syria and in Iraq, but also in Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, and of civil wars in Mali (clashes between the army and rebel groups), Mozambique, Nigeria (war against Islamic militants), Central African Republic (clashes between Muslims and Christians), Democratic Republic of Congo (war against the rebel groups), Somalia (war against al-Shabaab’s militants), Sudan (war against the rebel groups in Darfur), South Sudan (clashes with rebel groups). In particular, the expansion of ISIL in the areas near to NATO’s member states represents a clear risk to NATO territory and interests. Finally, NATO wants a closer cooperation with EU. The Aegean Sea could be considered as a test case to show like a normative and political power as the EU can work together with a defensive institution.

Nowadays, NATO considers that the mission in the Aegean Sea is a success, and it could test a new experience in the Central Mediterranean, where the EU-Sophia Operation works under the UN aegis.

The background

On 23 May 2016, the Council underlined the need to enhance the capacity of the EUNAVFOR MED Operation, started on 22 July 2015. The mission core mandate 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, in order to contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean and prevent further loss of life at sea. Operation Sophia was established by the EU Council on 18 May 2015 as a response to the surge of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Libya. EUNAVFOR Med reached its full operational capability on 27 July 2015 but the operation was structured in three sequential phases. The first phase consisted of gathering information on the human trafficking networks; the second phase involved conducting boarding, search, seizure and diversion on the high seas of vessels used for human smuggling, and then doing the same in the territorial and internal waters of Libya, provided that the EU obtained a mandate from the UN Security Council or the consent of the Libyan authorities. In the third phase, still under a UNSC resolution or conditional on Libyan consent, the operation can take ‘all necessary measures against a vessel and related assets, including through disposing of them or rendering them inoperable’ in the territory of Libya.

On 16 May 2016, Fayez al-Sarraj, the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime minister of the Government of National Accord of Libya, reminded that the fight against ISIL would have been achieved by Libyan efforts and without foreign military intervention. Libya was not asking for foreign boots on the ground, but it was requesting assistance with training, and lifting the arms embargo on Libya. A few days later, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, outlined the importance to support the new Government of National Accord in Libya, if so requested. NATO is not addressing any potential combat operation or military intervention. The UE and NATO are working together in the Aegean, and they are looking at ways in which they can work with Operation Sophia.

On 23 May 2016, the European Council agreed to extend the mandate and to add two further supporting task:

  • Capacity building and training of the Libyan Coastguard and Navy, based on a request by the legitimate Libyan authorities taking into account the need for Libyan ownership;
  • Contributing to information sharing, as well as implementation of the UN arms embargo on the High Seas off the coast of Libya on the basis of a new UNSC Resolution.

On 6 June 2016, the HR Federica Mogherini, during her speech at the UN Security Council on the European Union, underlined the importance of collaboration between UN and EU. In the framework of the EUNAVFOR MED, she asked the UN Council to adopt a Resolution on authorising Operation Sophia to enforce the UN arms embargo on the high seas, off the coast of Libya. Concerning the Libyan situation, the UE played a double game. Firstly, the EU decided to move forward Central Mediterranean and to manage independently a humanitarian operation, be sure of its resources, instruments and tools. Secondly, the EU asked for UN authorisation to step up the Sophia operation, and it supposes NATO collaboration and cooperation, on the basis of the experience in the Aegean Sea.

The results

On 25 May 2016, during an interview, Enrico Credendino, admiral of the European fleet in central Mediterranean, said that Libya is the “new Somalia” in the heart of the Mediterranean, because only with the stabilization of the country could the EU block the traffickers. The Libyan new government is taking the first steps in this direction and the rebirth of the Coast Guard, with the EU helps, will be an important signal. With the Council conclusions on EUNAVAFOR MED of course, the European fleet can move quickly: in three or four months the Libyans will be able to act autonomously. Credendino underlined the importance of an UN authorization in order to conduct the operation in the Libyan territorial waters, training and building an efficient Libyan coast guard. At the same time, the EU wanted to contribute enhancing the UN embargo.

14 June 2016 was an important day for Libya and for the EU. On this day, unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council of Resolution 2292 enables Operation Sophia to play an important role in implementing the UN arms embargo. The UN resolution, taking note of the decision of the Council on 23 May «extended the EU mandate, decided to authorize Member States to inspect on the high seas off the coast of Libya vessels bound to or from Libya which they have reasonable grounds to believe are carrying arms or related material to or from Libya, directly or indirectly, in violation of paragraph 9 or 10 of resolution 1970 (2011)». In other words, thanks to its power in and within the UN, the EU succeeded to obtain the resolution only after eight days from the HR request.

The same day, in Brussels, during the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers, Jens Stoltenberg, in his doorstep statement, affirmed that NATO needs to enhance the cooperation with the EU. NATO asked their military planners to come up with recommendation with an assessment what more the Alliance can do building on experience from the Aegean Sea and then possibility moving to the Central Mediterranean. NATO has assets, ships, capabilities, intelligence, and surveillance capabilities which can be useful in support of the EU mission Sophia. This means that the EU has a strong influence inside NATO, and at the same time the power to affect its policies. In fact, on 17 June 2016, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met Mohamed Taha Siala, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Libya, discussing the political situation in Libya. The Secretary General said he was encouraged by the progress made by the Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj and conveyed NATO’s support for the political dialogue process led by the United Nations. During their meeting, they also addressed NATO’s possible assistance to Libya in the defence and security field, which would be part of the international efforts to help the country address existing security challenges. NATO stands ready to assist Libya in the field of defence and security institution building, if requested by the Government of National Accord and in compliance with the United Nations and the European Union. This could be a step forward to enhance the NATO-UE cooperation, considering that the two institutions show the same interests.

The proof of political engagement and of the link between UE and UN, and EU and NATO was clear on Monday 20 June, during Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg. After the UN resolution 2292, and Stoltenberg’s declarations, the EU formally extended the mandate of the EUNAVFOR MED in the Mediterranean until 27 July 2017.

According to Admiral Credendino this mission will be structured in three phases. The first phase will take place at sea, aboard a European ship, where up to 100 Libyans will be trained at the same time. According to an European source, this training requires the naval operation to find an additional vessel able to accommodate the Libyan officers and trainers. The second phase of the training, which could be carried out at the same time as the first, should enable more people to be trained on land, in EU countries or third countries, including Libya. The third phase will consist of the practical set up of people that have taken part in the first two phases on the Libyan coastguard vessels. At the same time, given that there is the UN resolution, Operation Sophia will also be authorised to enforce the arms embargo on Libya. Then the EU is also authorised to take measures on the high seas on suspect vessels, which means inspecting, boarding and re-routing these vessels to a port from a member state or third country.

In instance of the EUNAVFOR MED operation, the EU proved to be an actor able to influence both NATO and the United Nations. This could mean that, despite the results of the referendum in the UK, the EU has a real power to establish itself as an actor capable of acting both independently and in collaboration with other international organizations. However, precisely because of the referendum, we have to take into consideration the consequences in the short and medium term. In fact, as part of Operation Sophia, this is still a British ship that operates in the Central Mediterranean. The possible (or future) lack of contribution from the United Kingdom in defence and security EU policy may adversely affect the efficiency of EU operations. However, the EU remains a power able to influence the policies of other international actors and to act as an independent power.

Maria Elena Argano

For further informations:

Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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