The European Union will launch a new naval and air mission in the eastern Mediterranean to stop weapons reaching warring factions in Libya, foreign ministers agreed after Austria lifted its veto.
The decision marked a breakthrough after weeks of fruitless negotiations and warnings by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell that the bloc risked irrelevance if it could not act, potentially leaving Libya’s fate to Turkey and Russia.
“We agree to create a mission that blocks the flow of arms into Libya,” Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio told reporters following a meeting in Brussels, referring to a UN arms embargo first imposed in 2011 but now barely upheld.
In a compromise to assuage Austrian concerns that any naval mission could bring more migrants to Europe, EU ships will hail and inspect suspicious vessels in the eastern Mediterranean, where most arms smuggling takes place, away from migrant routes, diplomats said.
Borrell hoped the EU operation could be patrolling by the end of March. At first, it would operate in international, not Libyan, waters. Borrell added the EU could not be expected to patrol the Egypt-Libya land border, through which artillery is delivered.
“It would be difficult for us to act between sovereign countries,” he told reporters.
Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said that was acceptable but Vienna would be vigilant for signs the mission, which will take several weeks to set up, will attract migrants into Europe.
Initially Borrell hoped to revive the EU’s military mission, Operation Sophia, which stopped deploying ships last March after Italy, facing an anti-immigrant backlash, said it would no longer take migrants rescued at sea.
A compromise was to use aircraft, rather than ships, to monitor smugglers supplying Libya’s rival governments.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged the EU to agree on a naval mission, saying overflights would not be enough. A senior UN official warned the arms embargo was meaningless because there was no-one to enforce it.
In a largely symbolic move, Operation Sophia will be scrapped.
Schallenberg said Austria dropped its veto because the new mission was military, not humanitarian. Under international law EU ships are required to rescue people in distress on the high seas.
Borrell needed the backing of all 27 EU governments to proceed.
Following a summit of world leaders in Berlin that aimed to seek a ceasefire in Libya, the EU will consider a peacekeeping mission if a fragile truce becomes a ceasefire, diplomats said.
A spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party said the UN, not the EU, should oversee the Libya arms embargo.
Ankara backs Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s internationally recognised government, while Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support eastern Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar.
“We think the EU overseeing the arms embargo will not achieve realistic results because some countries support Haftar and send weapons to him,” Omer Celik said in a news conference.
“Turkey sees the UN mechanism as the best. Implementation of a ceasefire should be prioritised,” he added.