EU split over naval mission amid Libya arms embargo concerns

BRUSSELS (AP) — A number of European Union countries are blocking a decision to resume a naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea over concerns that it might encourage migrants to set out from the Libyan coast in search of better lives in Europe, the EU’s top diplomat said Monday.

The naval mission, Operation Sophia, was launched in 2015 amid a wave of irregular migration from North Africa to Europe. The aim was to crack down on migrant smugglers and enforce a U.N. arms embargo on conflict-torn Libya, which is routinely being flouted.

But tension over how to distribute migrants picked up in the sea among EU member states, and claims that the naval presence might encourage smugglers, led Italy to block the deployment of further ships last year. It currently functions almost exclusively using aircraft and pilot-less drones. Austria too is opposing the return of warships.

“There are people who believe that more assessment has to be done to be sure that it’s not going to produce a pull effect,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels as he arrived to chair a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers.

“My analysis of the figures, the data, I am not convinced of that. But some believe it,” Borrell said. He did not name the countries concerned, but he cast doubt over whether the issue would be resolved this month, despite increasing international calls for help in ensuring that the arms embargo on Libya is respected.

Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed.

A weak U.N.-recognized administration that now holds the capital of Tripoli and parts of the country’s west is backed by Turkey, which recently sent thousands of soldiers to Libya, and to a lesser degree Qatar and Italy, as well as local militias.

On the other side is a rival government in the east that supports self-styled Gen. Khalifa Hifter, whose forces launched an offensive to capture Tripoli last April. They are backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, France and Russia.

Borrell said “the situation on the ground is very, very bad.”

Ahead of Monday’s talks, Borrell’s services circulated a memo suggesting that Sophia should be renamed “Operation EU Active Surveillance.” It urged member countries to agree on whether gathering information on, and upholding, the U.N. embargo should become the naval mission’s “core task.” Monitoring people smuggling would be relegated to a “supporting task” carried out from the air.

The memo warned that “we run the risk that, short of concrete action, the EU will become irrelevant and others will continue to determine the development of events in Libya in ways that will not respond to our interests.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country is leading part of the political process aimed at ending the conflict, said the EU must play its part. He said that it doesn’t really matter how the bloc helps police the arms embargo “but it is important that we can monitor whether on land, in the air or on the water whether the embargo is broken.”

While Libya is a main jumping off point for people trying to reach Europe, Maas urged his EU partners to think of the strife-torn country in security terms and not only as a source of migrants, saying that “the migration problems can only be solved if Libya does not remain a failed state.”

“Ending the civil war is a precondition to find answers to all questions that are important to us in Europe,” he said.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said that the so-called Berlin political process “is not worth much if there is no control over the arms embargo and the troops that move around in Libya. That’s why we have to watch the sea. It’s a European obligation.”

Asselborn took aim in particular at Austria, which is also blocking the naval mission, saying: “it’s too much, to abandon or break with our consensus just to avoid having to save a few people.”

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Kirsten Grieshaber and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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