France engages its Frigate Jean Bart in Operation IRINI, but the EU mission is under friendly fire

France engages its Frigate Jean Bart in Operation IRINI, but the EU mission is under friendly fire

On May 4, 2020, the French anti-aircraft frigate Jean Bart has been deployed in the central Mediterranean, joining the European Union operation IRINI, but Malta might abandon ship.

According to ANSAMed, the Maltese government last week had threatened to withdraw from Operation IRINI. Diplomatic sources allegedly said that Malta told the Athena Committee, the audit body of the EU, that it would veto decisions regarding Operation IRINI’s “spending procedures for disembarkation of migrants.” Also, MaltaToday maintains that the Maltese government disagrees with the EU on issues like port diversions and the admissibility of drones.

So far, the European Commission hasn’t’ t confirmed such a formal note from the Maltese government. Previously, the Libyan government expressed its disagreement about the purpose and usefulness of Operation IRINI. Therefore, the future of IRINI is uncertain.

Certainly, Operation IRINI is causing collateral damages to Malta for several reasons.

Operation IRINI is a naval blockade enforced by a couple of vessels and a pair of reconnaissance airplanes off the Eastern shore of Libya. So, migrants can now straightforwardly sail through the central Mediterranean, en route to Malta, expecting to be rescued by some NGO’s boat cruising off the Libyan territorial water.

Furthermore, the other two EU decisions caused massive movements of migrants in the Central Mediterranean toward Malta: the dismissal of Operation SOPHIA, which had established well-defined search and rescue zones, and the coincident shutting of Italian ports to migrants justified with the Covid-19 emergency. As a result, migrants disembark quadrupled in the same period in Malta

All in all, seemingly, the government of Malta looks for concrete help and support from EU member states in terms of migrants’ relocation and temporary hosting’ funding. Still, specific troublesome issues upset Malta and involve the geopolitics of the Mediterranean.

“The effective enforcement of the UN arms embargo on Libya will help in achieving a sustainable ceasefire and advancing towards a political agreement. Operation Irini is therefore an important contribution towards achieving this goal. It shows EU commitment to peace in Libya, even at times when Member States are battling the coronavirus pandemic”

Josep Borrell, The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Looking at Operation IRINI units’ deployment, it is evident that they may be able to enforce the UN arms embargo only against the internationally recognized Al- Serraj GNA government. GNA’s troublesome sponsor, Turkey, can deliver supplies only by sea. On the other hand, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates can consistently supply GNA’s opponent, General Haftar Libyan National Army, both by air and land. As a result, Operation IRINI would be successful only against Russian support to LNA and put Moscow out of the playground.

The Libyan scramble involves Greece, too, albeit for a different reason. As argued in a previous commentary, Greece disapproves the November 2019 MOU signed by the GNA and Turkey, because it threatens national interests. Consequently, Athens backs operation IRINI to damage its historical enemy.

Throwing a stone in the pond, Turkey strategically tries to profit from Malta nervousness toward the other EU members, as recent meetings between Malta foreign minister and the Turkish ambassador to Malta, and by Home Affairs Minister informal consultations with Turkish national defense minister suggest.

Amid gloomy perspectives, IRINI’ HQ welcomes the deployment of the French frigate because it enables to overseeing both the sea communication lines and air traffic. Yet, frigate Jean Bart’s dual capacity is critical for the execution of Operation IRINI. In political terms, the choice to participate in IRINI dissipates previous skepticism about the French by-partisan role in the multifaceted Libyan scenario.

In 2015, France joined the EU operation SOPHIA to fight migrants trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea and to tackle the threats posed to regional stability by human, oil, and arms traffic caused by the Libyan crisis. Now, after the conclusion of Operation SOPHIA, France reiterates its involvement in joining its European Union partners in the new framework of mission IRINI. For three weeks, the French frigate will patrol the central Mediterranean. A few days earlier, the French Light Frigate Aconit preceded the Jean Bart in the area while cruising to the eastern Mediterranean.

Launched on March 31, 2020, the main objective of Operation IRINI is to support the implementation of the 2016 United Nations resolution on the arms embargo on Libya (UNSCR 2292). The EU states agreed that, in the initial period, three countries deploy their vessels (France, Greece, and Italy). Additionally, Malta should offer one boarding staff, Germany, Luxembourg, and Poland should deliver one patrol airplane each, and other member states should deploy the same number of vessels and aircraft to provide additional support.

“On April 28 the initial Force Generation Conference ended, therefore Operation IRINI was able to start planning operations at sea with its first assets. Other assets offered by Member States will join the Operation in the coming weeks and months”

Admiral Fabio Agostini, Commander of the EU Operation IRINI

Particular assets needed to implement Operation IRINI, like submarines, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and Airborne Early Warning planes, are also likely to join the mission and will be provided by the Member States on exceptional needs. The European Satellite Centre (SatCen) will deliver satellite images.

The Command of Operation IRINI shall be assigned to Italy and Greece every six months. The replacement of the Force Commander will involve the alternation of the flagship. In addition to armed assets, operation IRINI will host a Crime Information Cell (CIC), whose staff will be granted by Member States and EU agencies. The CIC will ease the receipt, collection, and transmission of data about weapons’ embargo on Libya, illegal exports of oil from Libya and human smuggling and trafficking, as well as crimes pertinent to operational safety.

George Costa

George Costa is a reporter specialized in defence and security systems. He covers international defence and security issues, such as international conflicts, WMD proliferation, and cybersecurity, as well as news reporting on developments in the global defence community.