EU agrees new Libya sea patrols after Austria lifts veto

FILE PHOTO: EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks during a news conference after a meeting to discuss Libya's crisis, in Brussels, Belgium January 7, 2020. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

The European Union will launch a new naval and air mission in the eastern Mediterranean to stop more weapons reaching the warring factions in Libya, foreign ministers agreed on Monday, 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 becoming irrelevant if it could not act, potentially leaving Libya’s fate to Turkey and Russia.

“We all 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 U.N. arms embargo first imposed in 2011 but now barely upheld.

In a compromise to assuage Austria’s 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 said he hoped the EU operation could be patrolling by the end of March. At first, it would operate in international, not Libyan, waters. Borrell also said the EU could not be expected to patrol the Egypt-Libya land border, through which artillery is still being delivered.

“It would be very difficult for us to act between two sovereign countries,” he told reporters.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said that was acceptable but that Vienna would still be vigilant for any signs that the mission, which will take several weeks to set up, was attracting migrants into Europe.

Initially Borrell had hoped to revive the EU’s current military mission, known as 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.

One compromise was to use aircraft, rather than ships, to monitor smugglers who supply Libya’s two rival governments.

But German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged the EU to agree on a naval mission, saying overflights would not be enough. On Sunday, a senior U.N. official warned that the arms embargo was meaningless because there was no-one to enforce it.