NATO refugee mission in Aegean Sea makes the EU look desperate

It is important to first outline the central role that the EU has played in the refugee crisis. The refugee crisis went from bad to worse when many refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya in the spring of 2015.

Following two major tragedies in April, the EU started to take action. As part of an effort to fight human traffickers, the European Council has instructed the EU institutions to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”.

This eventually became the EU NAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, which was launched off the coast of Libya in June last year. Amidst legal uncertainties and the absence of a UN Security Council mandate to enter Libyan territorial waters, the operation would consist of three phases. The operation would first gather information about migration networks. It would, secondly, board, search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for human smuggling. And in the third phase, it would destroy such vessels before refugees could enter them.

It suffices to say that the international legal mandate never came. That Operation Sophia only started its second phase in October 2015. That its success stories have been of a humanitarian nature. And that, shortly after the launch, it became clear that most migrants preferred the Western Balkans Route via Turkey and Greece. In terms of this Western Balkans Route, the EU has also taken various attempts to tackle human trafficking and the flows of refugees. Most prominently, it has tried to negotiate a deal with Turkey to ensure enforcement on the Turkish side in exchange of financial reward.

The EU has also put Greece under pressure warning to cut it off from the Schengen Area in case it fails to protect its borders. The Commission proposed a European Border and Coast Guard last December, which can intervene if member states do not manage on their own. The mandate of FRONTEX has also been expanded and FRONTEX has repeatedly asked for more border guards. Member states have hardly been forthcoming, perhaps because few actually have serious border forces as a result of Schengen.

Finally, the EU has made various doomed plans to reallocate refugees between member states. Reaching a political agreement proved difficult; implementing the agreement in practice impossible. Given that the EU has been the focal organisation for managing the refugee crisis, including in terms of security arrangements, NATO’s recent involvement is surprising to say the least.

First of all, the request for NATO involvement came from Germany and Turkey, two of NATO’s normally less than enthusiastic allies. Second, while NATO has considerable naval capacities, managing a refugee crisis is not, in the word’s of a NATO official, “really NATO’s job”. NATO is not a humanitarian organisation and typically tries to stick to limited mandates. Third, the NATO operation in the Aegean Sea has almost exactly the same intelligence mandate as Operation Sophia. High Representative Federica Mogherini was quick to point out that she will consult with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on coordination and best practices – but still. Fourth, one wonders what NATO is really going to do. Beyond gathering intelligence about human trafficking networks, sharing it with the Turkish authorities, ferrying refugees back to Turkey, it can add little value.

The whole situation looks desperate. Germany is clearly so fed up with its European partners that it now prefers to act through NATO channels, despite its distinct strategic culture and non-militaristic tradition. Turkey perhaps also finds it easier to deal with NATO, where it sits at the decision table, than to agree to EU demands on a bilateral basis. Turkey was also not going to let an EU military operation, or FRONTEX for that matter, into its territorial waters. Having to talk to EU member states Greece and Cyprus would only make matters worse.

The lack of rapid response in the case of Operation Sophia and the fact that NATO has a standing maritime capacity is another argument in favour of NATO. Furthermore, planning was done within a week. The German-Turkish request came in on Monday and the NATO warships arrived before the weekend was over.

It is too early to tell what the consequences of the NATO involvement are for the refugee crisis. Military and NATO commanders are typically looking for end-states. Furthermore, while American ships are not contributing to the NATO mission, and the US repeatedly makes clear it is a European affair, it does mean that the US now indirectly gets involved. Finally, the fact that civilian custom guards are incapable of doing their jobs now leads to further militarization of the crisis.

h.dijkstra_Hylke Dijkstra website.jpg

About the Author

Hylke Dijkstra is Assistant Professor with tenure at Maastricht University, The Netherlands. He is the author of International Organizations and Military Affairs (Routledge, 2016). Follow him on Twitter @DijkstraHylke

back to overview