Since Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to Lampedusa last week, rumours have circulated that the EU is considering a new naval mission in the Mediterranean. Even before the recent arrivals, Italy had requested EU action, faced with a challenging situation and the perennial lack of support from other Member States. “Explore options to expand naval missions in the Mediterranean” makes it into the Commission’s 10-point plan for response to the situation in Lampedusa at point 5.

ECRE has long argued for expanded EU naval operations, first as part of its plans for a collective approach to SAR and relocation in 2018 and more recently in its comments on the (lack of) progress in the EU’s SAR Contact Group (here) and in response to the Pylos shipwreck, with the ongoing refusal of certain states to fulfil their SAR obligations being a constant background factor and the attacks on NGO-led SAR efforts being an increasing problem. Expanded SAR capacity under the EU’s auspices could be in the form of a new CSDP mission with SAR as part of its mandate although a much more realistic and feasible option in the short term would be reinstatement of appropriate levels of naval assets in existing EU missions and operations, be they under external policies or internal policies (CSDP missions and Frontex operations respectively). Brokering agreements among coastal states on division of responsibilities for disembarkation and with non-coastal states on relocation is also essential. In relation to the former, Germany’s decision to cease relocation at a point of great need is inexplicable and contemptible.

The suggestion that a naval mission is under discussion should then be a cause for celebration, but as so often there’s a twist in the tale. Rather than rescuing people, the rumoured mission is supposed to put in place a naval blockade to prevent boats arriving in Europe. How an EU mission will be established with a mandate that is blatantly illegal has yet to be explained – at first sight, blockading the coast and watching while flimsy vessels sink and people drown, would appear to breach numerous provisions of international law.

Even if the mandate was less blatantly unlawful, for instance, a blockade that prevents boats leaving Tunisian or Libyan waters, disrupts NGO SAR efforts, and calls in the Libyan and Tunisian coastguards to rescue people, it still wouldn’t be likely to get past the courts or indeed the EU institutions’ various legal services. No country in North Africa can be classed as a place of safety for the purposes of International Law of the Sea, and a naval blockade cooperating closely with coastguards would constitute “exerting control” and engage liability for the EU and for individual countries deploying assets and crew. It is likely – and to be hoped – that the option is being “explored” in an attempt to appease Italy without anything concrete likely to emerge.

Nonetheless, other forms of cooperation with coastguards and other agencies continue, and are included among the 10 points, as is implementation of the dodgy deal with Tunisia at point 10. Just today, funding to support the Memorandum of Understanding has been announced, although closer interrogation shows that most of that is not new funding.

This is despite the fact that the deal is not just failing but appears to have been counter-productive – as the situation worsens in Tunisia, so more people seek to leave. There is a direct link to the deal as the justification given by the government for its harsh actions, including beatings and expulsions, is the need to prevent people leaving for Europe, and the focus is on Sfax, a departure point. Likely so many similar deals, it appears to be reinforcing the more repressive elements within the state.

The deal itself starts to look like a rogue initiative, with strong criticism voiced by some Member States, who apparently experienced “incomprehension” when the MoU was announced; by the High Representative; by the European Parliament, where the content, process and format of the MoU were denounced; and by the European Ombudsman, which has launched an investigation. Support to Tunisia is essential, given the needs and the precarity of the situation in the country, but that has to be part of well-thought out and long-term approach, not cowboy parallel foreign policies aimed at serving (perceived) European interests on migration.

Of the 10 points, about 2.5 go in the right direction of supporting Italy to manage the situation, including expanded EUAA support at point 1 (so long as that is for registration and reception), transferring people from Lampedusa, including using the EU’s solidarity mechanism at point 2, and a small reference to alternatives including safe routes under the otherwise unhelpful point 8. As mentioned, the reference to naval options under point 5 could go in either direction. To these points, support with emergency funding could also be added.

Among the rest of the 10 points, there are some predictable references to return and prevention of departure, however, there are also highly concerning and potentially damaging new elements. First is the reference in point 7 to the role of the EUAA in supporting swift procedures, including use of safe third country concepts, rejecting applications as manifestly unfounded, and issuing entry bans, all of which sounds like experimenting with measures that are part of the negotiations of the reform of EU asylum law and yet to be adopted, as well as finding ways to circumvent individual assessment of asylum claims. Also concerning is point 9 on supporting a “route-based approach”, code for allowing Europe to deflect its responsibilities elsewhere – somewhere down the “route” (i.e. to Tunisia or Libya or Niger, those very safe places).

Overall, instead of wishful thinking about illegal blockades and dodgy deals, in the short-term the EU urgently needs to focus on supporting Italy in order to host people arriving and to manage the situation. It will be more fruitful and effective in all senses than some of the efforts so far.

Editorial:  Catherine Woollard, Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)