EU to deploy warships off Libya in first sign of military muscle

European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell gives a press conference at the end of a European foreign affairs council in Brussels, Belgium, on Feb 17, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRUSSELS (BLOOMBERG) - The European Union agreed to deploy warships to enforce an arms embargo on Libya in a move that underscores the increasing importance the bloc places on geopolitics and that seeks to defuse the conflict ravaging a major African oil producer.

EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday (Feb 17) to launch aerial, satellite and maritime assets in the Mediterranean Sea tasked with preventing the shipment of arms to Libya's warring factions, according to diplomats familiar with the matter.

The breakthrough came after weeks of fraught negotiations sparked by fears that immigrants seeking to cross to the EU would get intentionally shipwrecked, forcing warships to save them and bring them to European ports.

A previous naval mission, named Operation Sophia after a child born on a German frigate from a rescued Somali mother, was discontinued, as countries such as Austria and Italy argued that it acted as a "pull factor" for asylum seekers.

According to Monday's decision, the ships from the new mission will also be withdrawn if a "pull" effect is observed.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, who had vetoed previous proposals, said he was content with the compromise. "I believe we achieved a good fundamental consensus today," Schallenberg said. "It will be a completely new mission, a new operational area, a new mandate with a clear focus on the arms embargo and clear safeguards against misuse by human traffickers."

The goal is to end a conflict between Fayez al-Sarraj, Libya's United Nations-backed prime minister, and his rival General Khalifa Haftar.

The civil war, triggered 10 months ago by Haftar's march on Tripoli, has killed more than 2,000 people and exploded into a proxy conflict drawing regional and global powers.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have been backing Haftar, who is also supported by Russian mercenaries, while Turkey has been sending troops and supplies to the internationally recognized government.

Last week, a senior UN official called the arms embargo on Libya a "joke" as governments struggled to hold together efforts to end the conflict in the North African country.

The deployment of warships will be a first test for EU's ambition to shift its focus from internal regulatory debates to geopolitics, amid an escalating global rivalry between the US and China, and the increasing assertiveness of regional powers, such as Turkey and Russia.

Increasingly squeezed between the competing ambitions, the EU has vowed to demonstrate more muscle in foreign policy, but so far has failed to match its ambition with actions.

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