¿Un bloqueo naval en el Mediterráneo? Ecos de la Operación Sophia

A naval blockade in the Mediterranean? Echoes of Operation Sophia


23 | 09 | 2023


The migratory avalanche on the Italian island of Lampedusa has led Rome to put on the table the possibility of a naval action of maritime control.

In the picture

Operation Sophia [EUNAVFOR MED].

In recent days, the massive and uncontrolled arrival of migrants to the Italian island of Lampedusa has led the Italian government to demand strong action from the EU on the matter, threatening a naval blockade by Italy in case Brussels does not take a decision soon. This puts on the table the possibility of reapplying an initiative such as Operation Sophia, a control initiative in the Mediterranean, launched in 2015 in the face of a similar crisis.

For centuries, the Mediterranean has witnessed countless movements of people across its waters. These transits, often from the African continent to old Europe, bring with them great challenges, especially for those forced to cross in a 10-meter barge that can barely stay afloat with 40 people on board.

The recent arrival of thousands of migrants in Lampedusa from Africa has prompted a strong reaction from the Italian Prime Minister, Georgia Meloni, whose statements Meloni for many put back on the table Operation Sophia and the possibility of re-establishing a similar initiative to stem the waves of migrants.

It is worthwhile, therefore, to briefly review the history of Operation Sophia, along with some basic notions of what a naval blockade entails, in order to defend the need or not to reestablish Operation Sophia to deal with the current status in the Mediterranean.

Operation Sophia

The problem of maritime immigration has been one of the most serious headaches for the European Union since its origins, especially for those countries that 'hang' from the continent closest to Africa: Spain, Italy and Greece.

To try to mitigate the effects of these mobilizations, identical to the most recent one in Lampedusa, the EU decided to establish in 2015 the so-called Operation Sophia (EU Naval Force Mediterranean or EUNAVFORMED). With it, Brussels sought to strengthen its capabilities to identify and capture all those vessels suspected of carrying illegal immigrants or traffickers. Its final name (the official one was EUNAVFOR MED) was coined by Josep Borrell's predecessor, EU High Representative for Security Policy, Federica Morgherini, who in her visit to the operation's headquarters in Rome declared:

"I would like to suggest to Member States that we change the name of the Operation: instead of calling it EUNAVFOR MED, I propose the name Sophia. To honor the lives of the people we are saving, the lives of the people we want to protect, and to send the message to the rest of the world that the fight against illegal immigration and human trafficking networks is a way to protect human life."

The operation began that same year, planned with a structure in four distinct phases. The first focused on maritime surveillance along the illegal trafficking networks to Europe. The second focused on the search and dispersal of all suspicious vessels. The third, to seize these vessels and take legal action against the traffickers caught. And the last one, the withdrawal of forces and the end of the operation. The first two phases were carried out, but the third phase never took place.

During its development, countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Holland, Slovenia, Spain and the United Kingdom (at the time, still a member of the Union) were involved partnership . A joint multinational effort, of even greater caliber than that deployed with the still active Operation Atalanta on the coasts of the Horn of Africa to fight piracy, in which the aforementioned nations contributed with ships and aircraft, the latter mainly for maritime patrol. Spain was, together with Italy, the third country that deployed the most ships, after Germany and France, sending the six frigates of the class Santa María (F-80), the patrol vessel Rayo, and the combat supply ship (BAC) Cantabria.

During the operation, which spanned five years, tens of thousands of migrants were rescued from the sea. In 2016 alone, after a year of activity, allied vessels had rescued more than 13,000 people, prompting the EU's committee to extend its duration. When it officially ended in 2020, having rescued more than 44,000 people, the EU turned its attention to the UN-imposed embargo on Libya, but movements of people have returned to levels not seen for years, thus demanding a robust response, and putting the option of reinstating Operation Sophia back on the table.

In the picture

Map of the 4 naval operations of financial aid humanitarian in the Mediterranean, with their start date [committee European].

Is it feasible to establish a naval blockade?

As we mentioned, in the face of the massive arrivals of migrants to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Italian Prime Minister has struck a blow on the table, calling the EU's attention to the impassivity shown by other countries. Meloni has stated in recent days that a "serious paradigm shift" is needed, and has threatened Brussels with the establishment of a naval blockade in its waters to stop the illegal arrival of these people. What does a naval blockade consist of? Is it feasible at this time?

Rationale for a naval blockade. In essence, a naval blockade is a tactical action used for the purpose of "denying the enemy the use of vessels or aircraft to transport purpose of "denying the enemy the use of vessels or aircraft to transport staff and goods to or from enemy territory". Its most effective and common application takes place in times of war, either to cut off supplies to enemy forces, or to prevent the mobilization of their forces to instructions or strategic points from which they can inflict significant damage on their own forces. A common example, used on numerous occasions during World War II, is to place ships around the enemy's ports and naval instructions , preventing him from leaving them and exposing him to attack should he attempt to do so.

Another more recent example can be found in the current status in the Black Sea, with Russian forces shelling Ukrainian port facilities and threatening to attack any vessel (regardless of its flag) heading to or leaving Ukrainian ports. By doing so, Russia intends to prevent financial aid access to Ukraine through this sea, while cutting off much of the seaborne trade in grain, cereal, fertilizers and other products exported from the region. In other words, to make the chances of success for Kiev and its allies more costly.

Legal implications. Migratory movements across the Mediterranean cross from one coast to another, which involves entering Italy's territorial waters before reaching its shores. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which regulates all matters relating to the sea in legal terms, states in its article 19 that "transit is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or safety of the coastal state", further specifying that "the loading or unloading of any goods, currency or person contrary to the fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws of the country concerned" is to be considered prejudicial. Furthermore, in its article 25(on the rights of protection of the coastal state) it states that states "may take the necessary measures in their territorial waters to prevent any passage which is not innocent".

Italy is therefore in a position to take whatever measures it deems appropriate in this regard, given that the massive arrival of these vessels and the thousands of immigrants on status directly threatens the national population and the territorial integrity of the country. The naval blockade could also be an option to be considered, provided that it is established with the explicit purpose to prevent the massive arrival of people in status illegally and does not cause other collateral damage that could directly affect other countries. In spite of this, the establishment of a multinational naval blockade by the EU is highly difficult to implement given its magnitude.

Alternatives to the blockade. In the case of the Italian proposal , Meloni has stated that his idea of carrying out the blockade derives precisely from Operation Sophia. The third phase of this operation described above, which was never implemented, established the interdiction of vessels with people in status irregular. In the internship, this is the closest thing to a naval blockade in peacetime. Therefore, taking into account the results of Operation Sophia a few years ago, reestablishing it again with the same purpose as then seems a realistic option, with serious guarantees of effectiveness, and deserves to be studied in detail. As we say, a naval blockade in the strict sense is not feasible at this time, and very probably Meloni has decided to put it on the table to stimulate a rapid response from Brussels.

Ultimately written request, the most convenient for the interests of Italy and the rest of the EU countries is something similar to Operation Sophia, which does not involve a naval blockade in the strict sense, and which relies on deterrence as the main tool . This would help to reduce the pressure on Italy by lowering the issue of migrants in status irregular; but, above all, it would have the purpose of deterring those responsible for these tragedies and making them see that the cost of carrying out such actions may be more damaging to them than they are willing to bear. At the end of the day, that is the ultimate goal of deterrence, to make your enemy see that the potential benefit they may gain from their actions will not outweigh the costs derived from them.

That is what the EU must seek: serious deterrence backed by effective measures that demonstrate clear determination.

Refusal to blockade: Strengthening maritime cooperation

As expected, the EU has not responded to Meloni's demands as she would have wished. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has recently announced a plan for financial aid for Italy, with 10 measures that do not envisage the establishment of a naval blockade or the reestablishment of Operation Sophia. It does mention the strengthening of patrols and maritime surveillance operations from the sea and from the air, with the purpose to prevent the illegal arrival of these vessels to Italian coasts, but as often happens with these initiatives, the proposals lack a clear concreteness indicating how to carry them out. This calls into question the effectiveness of the measures proposed by the Commission.

Regardless of the concrete measures that are finally taken, what is clear is that the decision and the forcefulness of Meloni's message will have positive effects in the short and medium term deadline. test is the plan drawn up by the Commission immediately after his demands; a plan that would hardly have been drawn up so quickly if the pressure from Meloni's government had not been equally strong. But recognizing the problem is only the first step in solving it.

In order to resolve this, the EU must pursue something similar (if not identical) to Operation Sophia, which would send a strong message to those responsible for human smuggling, and make them see that the costs of their actions outweigh any benefits they may derive from it. Sophia has already brought positive results for the EU, and would allow in this case to reduce the migratory pressure on Italy without reaching a naval blockade. The example of Sophia, as well as Operation Atalanta in the Indian Ocean, are test enough to prove that Member States are capable of complying with mission statement. Whether or not there is a firm will to carry it out is another matter.