Being it an EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission, Operation Sophia fully falls under the scope of EU law and its Dublin acquis entailing strict rules on the attribution of responsibility for disembarking irregular migrants rescued by the mission’s naval units. These rules impose a disproportionate migratory pressure on forefront EU Member States like Italy, which has threatened to pursue the termination of the mission should a fairer distribution of rescued migrants and asylum seekers not be agreed upon at the EU level. Short of widespread agreement among European partners on this issue, a compromise solution over the fate of Operation Sophia was recently found: EU Member States green-lighted the extension of the mission’s duration until September 2019, yet maintaining exclusively aerial assets.
As an outermost EU Member State, Italy has been one of the main entry points for the asylum seekers and migrants that have accessed Europe in recent years: over half a million people have crossed the Central Mediterranean Sea and reached Italian soil between 2011 and 2016. Presence at sea was reinforced to react to this unexpected influx of third-country nationals, fight migration-related organized crime and save endangered lives.
Rome firstly launched the military-supported Mare Nostrum operation that systematized Search and Rescue (SAR) activities in the Central Mediterranean and patrolled Italian borders. Mare Nostrum was then accompanied by the Frontex joint operation Triton whose assets, fulfilling chiefly a border control mandate, were deployed closer to the Italian costs. EUNAVFORMED Operation Sophia constituted an upgrade of the former missions. It was activated in 2015 with a decision of the Council of the European Union, locating the operation in the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) domain. This broader and comprehensive endeavor counts twenty-seven participants among EU and non-EU nation states.
The Operation – its headquarters being in Rome – has eminently an anti-smuggling mandate and aims to disrupt smugglers’ ‘business model’. Its usual area of intervention is the Libyan SAR zone. The ties between Operation Sophia and the Libyan context are indeed particularly tight. Accordingly, the mission also contributes to the training of Libyan Coast guards, the actualization of the UN arms embargo covering the area off the coast of Libya and the blocking of illegal oil exports deriving from the North African country. Because of these far-reaching functions, Operation Sophia required the green light from the United Nations Security Council, which was contained in two Resolutions of 2015 and 2016.
The expiration date of the EU CSDP Operation Sophia – falling on 31 March 2019 – spurred a discussion on the advisability of extending, altering or terminating the mission’s mandate. This was due to the fact that the military operation has regularly come under fire from more than one side. Indeed, the Operation must comply with European law and the controversial Dublin acquis whereby the country first entered by an asylum seeker should take charge of his or her asylum application. Being Italy the safest and closest port for migrants rescued by Operation Sophia’s units in the Central Mediterranean, it has faced a disproportionate number of irregular entries and asylum applications vis-a-vis its European partners.
For this reason, Italy – and particularly the country’s current government – generally calls for the decoupling of rescuing duties from the responsibility for asylum applications. However, non-border EU Member States do not fundamentally share Italian concerns. This tense situation has affected Operation Sophia’s functioning, to the point that EU Member States like Germany have regularly questioned the convenience of preserving the mission. In the absence of a political accord around the specific issue of Operation Sophia’s continuation, the Council of the European Union ultimately decided to extend the operation for an additional six months but depriving it of its naval assets.
This downgrading could, however, result in more dangerous journeys for migrants and undermine European efforts at monitoring the Libyan context more closely, which is presently undergoing further destabilization.
This deep-seated divergence is inextricably linked with the stalling of the reform process of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS). The purported European migration crisis has in fact inaugurated a difficult season in intra-EU relations and in the process of European integration as a whole. It clearly showed the extent of the EU Member States’ willingness and political intention to integrate further, which stumbled over the possibility of involving the entire Union in a delicate matter – irregular migration and asylum – directly affecting only its outermost countries. Accordingly, since the height of the migration surge in Europe, EU Member States have largely failed to find a proper political balance between the principle of responsibility enshrined in the EU law sources regulating the reception and management of irregular migrants and asylum seekers who cross European borders, and the value of solidarity proclaimed in the EU fundamental treaties.
This manifest failure strained relations between forefront EU Member States and the rest of the Union, as it was shown by the recent inability to find common solutions to the disembarkation of rescued migrants who were forced to wait for days on overloaded ships while the European partners were negotiating over ad hoc arrangements. Such misalignment could spill over to other sectors – economics, defense, foreign relations – weakening the position of the EU vis-à-vis global great powers.
The decision to practically alter the original configuration of Operation Sophia has alarmed non-governmental organizations and actors involved in migration who fear migrants’ conditions will further deteriorate following this partial disengagement of the European community from the Central Mediterranean. In order for the impasse to be solved and these appalling scenarios to be averted, a solution to the responsibility/solidarity conundrum must be found.
The EU Member States have considered and evaluated the option of externalizing migration procedures or enhancing the role of Libya, despite its state of political frailty and the related human rights concerns, in managing migration. It appears however that such choices – in a context of general political indeterminacy and disagreements among European partners – will hardly constitute a durable solution to the migration situation at European borders. More probably, they will transform into the seeds of harsher hurdles to confront in the time to come.