EU foreign ministers back Libya military operation

Military and naval missions will be mandated to enforce UN arms embargo on Libya

EU foreign ministers have agreed to EU military and naval missions to war-torn Libya to help implement Sunday's Berlin landmark peace agreement.

The missions, reflecting an EU determination to play a more active role on the world stage, will be mandated to enforce the UN’s arms embargo on Libya and to monitor a ceasefire, if and when it is agreed.

A precarious truce allowed world leaders in Berlin, including all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to agree a 55-item text framework for UN-brokered peace talks, for the enforcement of the UN embargo, and to lay the basis for a ceasefire.

The ceasefire remains aspirational, but observers said that the willingness of both rival factions in Libya – to name their own military representatives to a committee tasked with bringing it about and monitoring it is a sign that it may happen. The rival leaders – eastern commander Khalifa Haftar and internationally recognised prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj – were in Berlin but refused to sit in the same room.


Concrete plans

Since Gen Hafter began trying to gain control of the capital Tripoli last year, more than 2,000 people have been killed in fighting in the country and about 150,000 displaced.

EU ministers asked the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, Josep Borrell, urgently to come up with concrete plans for EU monitoring of a ceasefire and for enforcing the embargo. They hope to give formal approval to such plans at their meeting on February 17th.

The deployments by the European Union are likely to involve a civilian/military observation mission, with EU personnel on the ground monitoring a ceasefire, while the EU would revive its naval operation Sophia off the coast with a new mandate related to the embargo. Mr Borrell said that the naval operation needs to be complemented by enhanced satellite and air capacity as many of the arms come in across Libya’s extensive desert borders.

Sophia, in which Ireland participated from 2015, was tasked originally as a search-and-rescue mission to save migrants off the Libyan coast – Irish Naval Service personnel have rescued more than 18,000 people. Sophia was then also tasked with targeting traffickers’ operations, and intercepting arms shipments.

The naval dimension of the operation had been suspended last year because Italy’s then far-right government would not accept further landings of rescued migrants. The attitude of the new Italian government, which contains the anti-immigrant Five Star Movement but not Matteo Salvini’s far-right League, remains unclear.


A new Sophia mandate is likely to prove problematic – although the mission will have a new focus on upholding the embargo, seafarers are required by the law of the sea to rescue those in danger at sea. And where they will be landed is not clear. Italy may yet prove an obstacle to the entire operation.

Mr Borrell insisted on Monday, however, that EU ships would not abandon their rescue role. “Any ship in the Mediterranean will be abiding by international law.”

He had spoken before the meeting of the need for the EU to actively contribute to the tentative peace deal hammered out in Berlin. “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,” Mr Borrell said Monday when asked about a possible military mission.

He said after the meeting that involvement by the EU had been unanimously endorsed – “political will was manifested” – and it would now be up to the military experts to put flesh on their ambition.

He made it clear, however, that participation in an observer mission would depend on a genuine ceasefire being in place.

Speaking on his way in to the meeting, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that the "EU is very conscious that we need to play a role here . This is in our neighbourhood." But he refused to be drawn on whether Ireland could contribute forces.

Italy and Greece said they are willing to send troops, while Germany has also expressed interest in an EU mission.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times