How the EU is Policing Libya’s Coasts Through the Irini Mission

Libya is engulfed in conflict with no signs of letting up. Opposing parties, aided by their regional backers, have waged a deadly war against each other. And there isn’t much anybody has been able to do to solve this quagmire.

Political rivals are fighting tooth and nail to control the war-torn country. On the one side is the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) which is based out of Tripoli. The GNA is aided by Turkish troops and they delivered large caches of ammunition to support its interests in the region.

Libya’s Two Main Sides

On the other side are rebels led by Marshal Khalifa Haftar who in turn are supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE has transferred tons of military hardware to support the Marshal. These military transfers are a blatant violation of various UN Security Council Resolutions which imposed an arms embargo on Libya to contain its conflict.

Russia, France and Italy are also supporting the warring sides in different ways.

What is Irini?

So when stakeholders met at January’s Berlin Conference to bring the parties to the negotiating table, the European Council (EC) agreed to launch a Common Security and Defense Operation in the Mediterranean Sea. The EC named the mission “Irini”, which means peace in Greek. Its core task is to implement a UN embargo through the use of aerial, satellite and maritime assets.

The mission will not be limited to inspections as the EU is also training the Libyan Coast Guard Navy in naval law enforcement tasks. In order to contain the inflows of arms and ammunition, the naval mission will also monitor and gather information on the illicit exports of petroleum, crude oil and refined petroleum products from Libya.

The EC argued that “only political solutions and the full respect of the UN arms embargo will bring a solution to the Libyan crisis. But diplomacy cannot succeed unless it is backed by action. This operation will be essential and a clear contribution to promoting peace in our immediate neighborhood through a permanent ceasefire.”

But any naval mission in the Mediterranean raises questions about how to deal with refugees. The naval ships attract a large number of refugees escaping conflict in their home countries. The issue has been an ongoing bone of contention among EU members.

Irini’s Can’t Solve All of Libya’s Problems

Earlier, Sophia, an EU mission to rescue migrants, was opposed by Italy and Austria. Italian authorities went as far as blocking the EU from using their ships after some vessels had reportedly rescued migrants.

Mission Irini was also opposed by Italy at the time of the Berlin Conference as they did not want ships to be used to rescue migrants. Although it is still not clear whether vessels that will be used in the Irini mission will rescue migrants, they will be obliged to rescue anyone in danger under international law.

Although Irini is certainly a solid step towards reducing Libya’s conflict, its ability to solve the country’s problems will remain limited. As Italy’s Foreign Policy Program Head at the Istituto Affari Internazionali explained last month: “Mediation efforts involving regional and international stakeholders will not deliver tangible results as the incentives to avoid undermining the already meager results of negotiations are not significant enough.”

Lawlessness and the proliferation of contested orders will prevail. Against this backdrop, the EU’s likely attempt to put its weight behind its recently-announced naval mission to enforce the arms embargo will drain a great deal of resources without producing tangible results.

But as stakeholders pursue conflict to secure their political interests, Libyans continue to bear the costs and lose hope for a better future.