Europe Reaches Libya Breakthrough With Naval Mission Deal

Nikos Chrysoloras

(Bloomberg) -- European Union nations reached an agreement on Thursday to launch a naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce a UN-mandated arms embargo on Libya, according to a diplomat familiar with the matter.

The deployment of warships underscores the increasing importance the EU places on defusing the conflict ravaging a major African oil producer. The goal of the mission -- named Operation Irini, the Greek word for peace -- is to help end fighting between the government of Fayez al-Sarraj, Libya’s United Nations-backed prime minister, and his rival, General Khalifa Haftar.

Read more: What’s Behind Nine Years of Turmoil in Libya: QuickTake

The showdown in Libya has exploded into a proxy conflict in the EU’s backyard, drawing in both regional and global powers, including Russia, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The arms embargo is widely breached.

A previous naval mission, named Operation Sophia, was discontinued as countries such as Austria and Italy argued that it acted as a “pull factor” for asylum seekers, encouraging migrants attempting to reach Europe via Libya to set out to sea in the hope of being rescued.

The breakdown of that operation, along with the long negotiations that followed to start the new mission, highlight how the EU’s geopolitical ambition has been held hostage by migration concerns -- a key theme for populist politicians seeking to upend the political establishment on the continent.

The breakthrough for the launch of Operation Irini came after Greece offered its ports as disembarkation points for migrants saved at sea by the mission’s warships, a Greek government official said. Until now, no country had wanted to do that.

The decision to commence the mission will be formalized via a written procedure between governments on Friday.

(Adds Greek government concession in penultimate paragraph.)

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