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EU’s Flagship Mission Irini and its Pitfalls with Turkey

The Mediterranean mission Irini off the coast of Libya has the potential to initiate a dangerous escalation between Turkey and the European Union, particularly without NATO’s involvement. This is mainly due to Ankara.

Irini is Different Than Past EU Mission Sophia

The previous week the European Union announced that its new Mediterranean mission Irini had commenced, intending to monitor the United Nations’ arms embargo in Libya. However, unlike the EU’s previous mission Sophia, which has also been trying to contain the smuggling of weapons since 2016, NATO will no longer offer reconnaissance and logistics, such as refueling, for Irini.

In EU circles, this is seen as a setback for the much-touted new cooperation between the EU and NATO. It is also regarded as an unfavorable political signal to the rest of the world — friends as well as foes. The reason for NATO’s absence was reportedly considerable opposition from NATO soldiers both within the alliance and in the EU, Irini being the EU’s flagship of its defense policy.

The operation is said to cease arms transports to Libya from the air, by satellite, and especially at sea — and to help facilitate peace in the civil war-torn country. Europeans remain highly interested in ending the escalation as the war continues to drive more and more refugees from Libya to Europe.

The Significance of NATO’s Absence

The fact that NATO is now holding out is a setback, especially since the alliance is already present in the Mediterranean with ships as part of its Sea Guardian operation, which deals with maritime surveillance, training and the fight against terrorism. Further cooperation between the EU and NATO would have been practically possible. On NATO’s side, however, Ankara opposed the support of Irini, which was sufficient, as unanimity would have been necessary for a decision.

Turkey’s rationale is obvious: an interruption of Turkish arms transports to Libya via NATO or EU ships is to be avoided at all costs, as Turkey continues to support Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and his Government of National Accord. It can be argued that without Turkey’s help, al Sarraj would have long ago lost to Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army – who, in turn, are supported by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France. Since November, Turkey has been supporting al-Sarraj in exchange for “delimited areas of influence” in the Mediterranean.

Turkey’s Interests are Evolving — and Not in a Peaceful Direction

Turkey’s interests today are thus different than at the time of Sophia. This dampens hopes of peace anytime soon. Due to the constant increase in international actors contributing to an escalation, the spiral of violence and hindering efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict are exacerbated.

However, there was also internal EU opposition against NATO’s support of Irini. France raised concerns, but the mission was rejected by Greece and Cyprus in particular. Both countries are concerned that Turkey — as part of a cooperation between NATO and the EU — would obtain valuable information and could direct its arms transports accordingly around the embargo.

Most importantly, however, it remains entirely unclear what happens if EU soldiers stop NATO member Turkey’s smugglers and Turkey is unwilling to relinquish the weapons. This could result in a violent conflict. Moreover, weapons from the Emirates continue to enter the country by air and from Egypt across the land border, complicating the issue.

The EU Doesn’t Have the Answer

The situation remains volatile. Both the internationally recognized government of al-Sarraj and Haftar are unsurprisingly strictly against the new EU operation Irini, as both sides seek further access to heavy weapons — despite all pledges and international efforts to bring an end to the war.

As for now, despite Irini, an end to Libya’s war is not in sight. Irini itself remains a symbol for a noble but toothless idea that once again illustrates the lack of a coherent European answer to today’s foreign policy challenges.