Italy is considering resumption of maritime patrols in the Mediterranean, a senior official said, but diplomats say Austria is sticking to its objections in a blow to European efforts to uphold a UN arms embargo on Libya.
The EU military mission Operation Sophia stopped deploying ships last March after Italy, facing an anti-immigrant backlash, said it would no longer accept migrants rescued at sea.
Italy is ready to resume sea patrols, the country’s vice foreign minister told Reuters, but diplomats said Austria was blocking the move, based on its position that people rescued on the high seas should not go to Europe.
“The reactivation of Operation Sophia is possible but with a revised mandate and a focus on the arms embargo in Libya,” Italy’s vice foreign minister Emanuela Del Re told Reuters.
Diplomats said despite negotiations, Austria’s conservative government stands by its objections. The EU needs the support of all 27 member countries to resume maritime patrols.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says Austria is a “target country” for migrants seeking a better life in Europe, similar to Germany and Sweden. He opposes maritime patrols, arguing that rescuing people encourages more to come.
Diplomats said Vienna rejected a compromise for the mission to resume in phases, starting with air surveillance, then moving into Libyan airspace, with a final phase using all available EU assets on air, land and sea.
At a news conference with his German counterpart Angela Merkel, Kurz said enforcing the UN embargo was “possible from the air”. EU military commanders who briefed EU diplomats warned anti-aircraft systems in Libya made overflights risky.
Top EU diplomat Josep Borrell, who warned the bloc it may become irrelevant if it does not act more assertively, hopes to reach a deal to revive maritime patrols on February 17 at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels.
Borrell noted in a speech to the European Parliament Austria has “major concerns” about reviving a mission many EU governments said was effective in dissuading smugglers when first launched in June 2015.
Borrell told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper a compromise was sea patrols away from the central Mediterranean and migrant routes, “further east toward Benghazi or even the Suez canal. Arms come from the east.”