EU gloomy about reviving Libya naval mission

EU foreign ministers are unlikely to revive a naval operation to enforce an arms embargo on war-torn Libya on Monday, the bloc’s diplomatic chief said, saying a number of countries were still against the plan.

Austria has led opposition to re-equipping Operation Sophia with ships to ensure the UN arms embargo — currently routinely being flouted — is respected, fearing it could reactivate a rescue fleet that would end up ferrying migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe’s ports.

The Libya crisis is on the agenda for EU ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday, but the bloc’s high representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell said he was not hopeful of reaching an agreement on Sophia.

“I don’t think today we are going to be able,” Borrell told reporters as he arrived, saying he would “continue working” and try to find a solution at the next ministers’ meeting, in March.

“I think there is more than one (country opposing the idea). When you approach the final decision many others have some final reluctance.”

Hungary, whose right-wing government has taken a tough anti-immigration stance, is understood to support Austria’s objections.

Making the arms embargo work is seen as crucial to stabilising the Libyan conflict, where the UN-backed Tripoli government is under attack from the forces of military strongman Khalifa Haftar, who controls much of the country’s south and east.

A senior UN official warned Sunday that a fragile truce agreed in January but regularly breached is “holding by a thread”.

World leaders agreed at a Berlin summit last month to end all meddling in the conflict and stop the flow of weapons into Libya, but little has changed on the ground since then.

States including Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support Haftar, while the UN-recognised government led by Fayez al-Sarraj is backed by Turkey and Qatar.

After a meeting of foreign ministers in Munich on Sunday — a folllow-up to the Berlin conference — Borrell hit out at Austria for blocking the Operation Sophia revival, saying it was absurd for a landlocked country which does not even have a navy to take such a stance.

On Monday, Borrell renewed his attack, rejecting Vienna’s claim that reviving naval operations would create a “pull effect” encouraging migrants to try to cross the Mediterranean by offering the prospect of rescue if they got into difficulties at sea.

Former Spanish foreign minister Borrell has said the renewed mission would focus on known weapons smuggling routes, away from the areas that human traffickers use to bring migrants from Libya.

But Austria has stood firm, with Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg telling Germany’s Die Welt newspaper he supported improving air surveillance and even deploying EU border guards in Libya — but not ships.