Launched by the EU Council in the midst of the Covid-19 emergency, Operation Irini is the eleventh CSDP military mission, 17 years after the first EU “boots on the ground” in Macedonia. Irini's main task is to enforce the arms embargo on Libya, which was imposed by the UN since 2011 but unfortunately has never been effectively implemented as yet, thereby contributing to the peace process in the country. The operation, led by an Italian admiral, uses aerial, satellite and naval assets, currently provided by Italy, Greece, France, Germany, Luxemburg and Poland and deployed in Central and Eastern Mediterranean.
The EU cooperation in defence reflects aspirations that have existed since the origins of the European integration process, but its actual inception is the result of specific conditions that only came about in the late 1990s, partially due to the dramatic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Much has been accomplished since 1998, when the Anglo-French summit in Saint Malo paved the way for further developments in this field. Member States now undergo a Coordinated Annual Defence Review (CARD), aiming to identify respective capability shortfalls and to coordinate future investments. Consequently, Member States, assisted by actors such as the European External Service (EEAS), the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European Military Staff (EUMS), may propose collaborative projects within the framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). As per the Multiannual Financial Framework 2021/2027, but with important preparatory tools already operational, the European Defence Fund (EDF) is meant to provide leverage to encourage the realization of these projects, thus strengthening the industrial and technological base of the European defence industry. Setbacks and difficulties are surely not lacking, but military missions now form part of a far more structured EU framework concerning security and defence policies.
The international context has changed, as well. In 2003, when the first EU military operation was launched, the European Security Strategy stated that “Europe has never been so secure”. However, in 2016 the EU Global Strategy outlined a much less reassuring scenario. Nowadays external interventions are no longer merely peacekeeping in scope, but serve also to “protect Europe, its Member States and its institutions”. The US has changed its global role and is engaging in fierce competition with expanding Chinese power. Multilateralism has been plunged into a deep crisis. Confrontational regional actors, such as Russia and Turkey, are filling the void left by in the MENA region. Terrorism and hybrid threats are still lurking. All this poses new challenges for the EU, forcing it to adjust its international stance. The Covid-19 emergency, moreover, is not only making the deployment of troops abroad and the funding for defence in the coming MFF harder, but it is deemed to emphasise the most worrying current global trends. As High Representative Borrell and Commissioner for the Internal Market and Defence Breton, recently wrote, “the era of the conciliatory, if not naive, EU has passed”. In the new scenario, they added, “virtuous soft power” is no longer enough, and the EU must therefore add some “hard power”, which requires a military dimension too.
This leads us back to the beginning. The launch of Irini marks a significant change in the EU military presence in the Mediterranean. Although a military operation, the now defunct Sophia had a mandate largely related to migration flows, an issue deeply connected with justice and home affairs. On the contrary, Irini’s main mandate is completely steeped in the realm of foreign policy. Aiming to enforce the arms embargo on Libya, the EU assumed the task of de-escalating the conflict and reducing the proxy intrusions, which is not exactly an easy task. The launch of Irini has been openly criticized by Tripoli’s government, claiming that an embargo only by sea benefits the conflicting Tobruk side. In the meantime, the fighting continues and the situation in the field has dramatically deteriorated. Russia and Turkey have unceremoniously entered the country (“the biggest geopolitical shift the Mediterranean history in the last century” according to a former minister of Italy) and the Berlin Conference has become to a very blurred image in the past.
Many CSDP missions have faced hardships and troubles. Even without considering long-standing issues such as force generation, intel sharing or funding, there have been numerous problems, including loss of life. Whenever complications and risks appeared overwhelming, the EU decided not to intervene, even when asked to act by the international community. Nothing compares to the current situation, however. To wit, take what happened earlier this summer. In the Mediterranean something quite big is at stake and Irini is facing a difficult conundrum. How to deal with a military ship, flying a NATO member flag, escorting a suspected cargo (flying Tanzanian flag) going back and forth between Turkey and Libya? The Greek frigate Spetsai asked to inspect the cargo but was not allowed to do so, as the military ship declared that the cargo was “under the protection of the Turkish Republic”. The French frigates Forbin and Courbet (although not part of operation Irini) tried on different occasions to inspect the cargo, but encountered the same obstacles, and the latter ended up being locked-on with the fire control radar by the Turkish ship (in military language, the last warning before an attack). So, what should be done? Irini’s mandate does not seem completely clear on this point, and a possible clash of international rules has been raised.
The Italian landing-ship San Giorgio (St. George) has recently reached the area of operations, assuming its role as Irini’s flagship. A difficult task is indeed awaiting. According to tradition, the legend of St. George took place right in Libya. On horseback, armed with a sword, George freed the citizens of the town of Selem by taming and then slaying a terrifying dragon that had been demanding human sacrifices. Ironically, in modern day Libya dragons appear to be more common than in ancient times. It will take a lot of courage and more than a sword to defeat them, requiring a strong and "no longer naive" EU in the saddle.
 See the article For a united, resilient and sovereign Europe, published in several European media on June, 8, 2020.
 See “Comment inspecter les navires suspects en mer? Le casse-tête d’Irini”, www.bruxelles2.org
Statements of fact and opinions reflect the personal view of the author and do not represent the views of the Italian Senate and ISPI in any way