The European Union launched its first naval operation to combat piracy off the Somali coast, dubbed “Operation Atalanta,” on Dec 8. Its one-year mission is to “take the necessary measures, including the use of force, to deter, prevent and intervene” to end acts of piracy and armed robbery in an area up to 1,000 kilometers off the coasts of Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania, and in the Gulf of Aden.
Three frigates have been patrolling the area, with embarked helicopters that help provide a wider range of operation. At a news conference in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec. 9, the operation’s commanding officer, Royal Navy Rear Adm. Phil Jones, said the mission was expected to average five or six ships, two or three maritime patrol aircraft and around 1,200 personnel. There is also a U.S. presence in the area, with which the EU is coordinating, but there is no coordination with Russian and Indian units. Beijing announced in December that it would send ships to the Gulf of Aden, a region of strategic importance for ensuring supplies of oil and raw materials to China and where several Chinese ships were attacked last year.
The EU fully took over from an interim NATO operation (in place since October) called Allied Provider on Dec. 14, as pirate attacks became considerably more frequent. According to International Maritime Organization data in December, 120 acts of piracy and armed robbery have been reported in 2008 (against a total of 440 since 1984) with more than 35 ships seized and more than 600 people kidnapped and held for ransom.
It is not yet clear if NATO will return to play a role in the mission in the future. “There is a possible longer term role for NATO in the area of piracy, but this is still at the level of the military committee,” said NATO spokeswoman Carmen Romero. “One option is a new mission to the same area to complement what the EU is doing because there is a lot of work to be done.”
The operation’s first priority is to protect World Food Program vessels (possibly with the on-board presence of armed units), with the first EU naval mission completed on Dec. 18. The second is to protect vulnerable ships mainly in the Gulf of Aden (although the definition of “vulnerable” is still under discussion) and the third is to deter and disrupt pirates wherever possible. “This does not mean sailing around looking for pirates,” said a representative for the EU operations headquarters at Northwood in England.
Arresting pirates is one of the most difficult issues and is still subject to negotiations. Some EU countries are willing to put the pirates on trial in their countries where their national interests are affected, but the EU is also trying to secure arrangements, especially with Kenya, where countries in the region are willing to take the detained pirates and try them.
Shipowners can register and get information from the Maritime Security Centre (www.mschoa.eu/) and a control center in Bahrain. The idea is that merchant ships can register their position and intended route so that they can be monitored. The EU representative said the EU was not operating convoys for all vessels but was trying to encourage ships to sail together where possible.
The U.N. Security Council authorized states to use land-based operations in Somalia on Dec. 18, but the EU naval force cannot do that now because it is not in its mandate.
Vasilis Margaras, a researcher with the Centre for European Policy Studies, described the EU’s efforts as a “minimalist approach” because “the EU is only sending a few ships.” He said EU missions tend to start on a small scale and then add more personnel and, in this case, ships. He said that the operation was “aspirin rather than the cure” and suggested that the EU should have a long-term strategy to end piracy and violence in Somalia.
There are some wider efforts being made. In addition to the piracy operation and as part of what it calls a comprehensive approach, the EU:
å Called on all parties in Somalia to join in with a reconciliation process called the Djibouti Agreement, which was signed by the Transitional Federal Government and the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia in August 2008.
å Supports an African Union military mission to Somalia (AMISOM) financially, in terms of planning and through capacity building.
å Supports the Somali police force and is providing 215.8 million euros ($307.5 million) from 2008 to 2013 for areas such as governance, education and rural development.
å Finally, the European Commission plans to address the issues of security in critical maritime routes in a 2009-2011 indicative program.
With regard to its support for AMISOM and the Somali police force, there are no plans to send any personnel, an EU diplomat said. The diplomat added that the EU is working closely with the U.N., which has the lead in terms of the political process.
Asked about the EU’s development funds, Margaras said it was not enough to throw money at the problem. “It is good to have local actors such as the African Union mission but there are question marks about its efficiency. It needs more EU training and support,” he said. What the EU was doing was a “wait and see” strategy and learning by doing, not a comprehensive strategy for the whole region.
Ana Gomes, a Portuguese socialist member of the European Parliament and a member of the parliament’s subcommittee on security and defense, said the naval mission may curb piracy in the short term, but that piracy would return. She said a political strategy was needed to address the situation on shore. “We won’t be able to eradicate piracy in the sea if we don’t address the question of law and order on land. The EU has abandoned the country to the whims of the U.S. administration, with consequences such as the re-emergence of terrorism,” she said.
“The EU should play a more important role, including providing support for the AMISOM mission in areas such as military personnel, training and logistics.”
Geoffrey Van Orden, a British conservative member of Parliament and retired Army brigadier general who is on the same subcommittee, described the EU operation as “an exercise in EU egotism. Instead, European nations, most of whom are also members of NATO, should be fully supporting NATO operations, both politically and militarily. That means giving NATO the capability for a sustained naval operation off the Horn of Africa.”
As for the EU’s long-term approach, he said, “Somalia is a failed state, requiring the active and coordinated attention of the whole international community through the U.N.” and “should perhaps be made a U.N. protectorate.”
“The EU may be able to contribute civil and financial assistance — for policing, infrastructure and economic redevelopment. But it should leave military efforts to others and avoid undermining NATO,” Van Orden said.