Documents considered by the Committee on 13 December 2017 Contents

15Operation SOPHIA

Committee’s assessment

Politically important

Committee’s decision

Cleared from scrutiny; further information requested; drawn to the attention of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees

Document details

Council Decision (CFSP) 2017/1385 of 25 July 2017 amending Decision (CFSP) 2015/778 on a European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED operation SOPHIA).

Legal base

Articles 42(2) and 43(2) TEU; unanimity

Department

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Document Number

(38918),—

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

15.1The EU launched its Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED), since renamed Operation SOPHIA,155 in June 2015 to counter people-trafficking in the Southern Central Mediterranean.156 Its core mandate is to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and other assets being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers, thus disrupting the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean, and in doing so prevent the further loss of life at sea. By July 2017, Operation SOPHIA had saved 38,000 lives and destroyed 463 smuggling vessels.157

15.2In July 2017, the House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee published a report on Operation SOPHIA.158 It concluded that the Operation had failed to achieve its objective of disrupting human trafficking in the region, because “meaningful EU action” would require action against those organising these activities on the ground in Libya. Based on these findings, the House of Lords report recommended closure of Operation SOPHIA, and its replacement with a naval operation focused solely on search and rescue for migrants at sea (see “Background” for more information).

15.3The day after the publication of the House of Lords report, the Minister for Europe (Sir Alan Duncan) informed the Committee that a draft Council Decision had been circulated to extend the mandate of Operation SOPHIA from July 2017 to December 2018. The Minister’s Explanatory Memorandum on the proposal made clear the Government’s support for the proposed Decision, stating that the Government “remains of the view” that disrupting the business model of smugglers and traffickers “is the right objective” for Operation SOPHIA.159 However, he recognised that the political conditions in Libya have precluded the Operation from moving its activities to inside Libyan territory where it “would have the greatest impact against the smugglers’ business model”.160

15.4With respect to the implications of Brexit for the UK’s participation in Operation Sophia and for cooperation with the EU on foreign and security policy matters more broadly, the Minister noted simply that “although we are leaving the EU, we remain committed to European Security and our future relationship with CSDP is subject to negotiation”. This position was reinforced in the Government’s position paper on post-Brexit foreign policy cooperation with the EU, which offers a partnership “unprecedented in its breadth (…) [and] in terms of the degree of engagement “.161 With respect to the CSDP specifically, the paper notes the UK could “work with the EU during mandate development and detailed operational planning”, as well as contributing “UK personnel, expertise, assets, or use of established UK national command and control facilities”. The Government has not described the nature of any UK-EU institutional structures to facilitate such close cooperation.

15.5The Council Decision extending Operation SOPHIA’s mandate to December 2018, and expanding its remit, was adopted unanimously by the Member States on 25 July 2017.162 The Government supported the Decision and overrode scrutiny, as there was no Committee in place at the time.

15.6We thank the Minister for his detailed Explanatory Memorandum, which provides a comprehensive overview of the Mission’s objectives and the Government’s assessment of progress made towards them.

15.7However, we share the concerns expressed in the House of Lords Report of 12 July 2017 in light of the continued year-on-year increases in migrants arriving in Italy via the central Mediterranean route, despite the presence of Operation SOPHIA vessels. While we agree with the Minister that “break[ing] the business model of the smugglers and traffickers” is a worthwhile objective, it does not follow that it is necessarily the right objective for Operation SOPHIA. As a naval mission, it manifestly cannot address the root causes of the explosive growth in both human trafficking and traditional smuggling from Libya, primarily the collapse of central state authority and the rule of law in the country.

15.8We must also place the UK’s contribution to Operation SOPHIA in the context of Brexit. The Government has clearly expressed its support for Operation SOPHIA, and its position paper on post-Brexit cooperation with the EU on foreign policy and security matters raises the possibility of continued UK contributions to CSDP operations and missions, during both the planning and operational phases. However, the paper does not explicitly take a position on UK participation in specific existing CSDP activities. As such, it is unclear whether the Government will seek to remain associated with the Operation SOPHIA after the UK ceases to be a Member State (should the operation, or a successor mission, still be active by March 2019).

15.9Given the above, we ask the Minister to:

15.10With respect to the Government’s support for the Council Decision to extend the mandate of Operation SOPHIA until December 2018, we consider that this was an acceptable instance of a scrutiny override, as the operation’s mandate was due to expire before the Committee would have been able to consider the proposed Decision.

15.11Given the high-profile nature of Operation Sophia, its impact on both the victims and perpetrators of human trafficking in the Mediterranean, and the UK’s leading role in its day-to-day operations, we are drawing this document to the attention of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees, the latter of which may wish to assess the functioning, achievements and shortcomings of the Operation in more detail in any follow-up to its predecessors’ inquiry into Libya.

Full details of the documents

Council Decision (CFSP) 2017/1385 of 25 July 2017 amending Decision (CFSP) 2015/778 on a European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED operation SOPHIA): (38918),—.

Background

15.12The EU launched its Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED), since renamed Operation SOPHIA,163 in June 2015 to counter people trafficking in the Southern Central Mediterranean.164 It was conceived as one element of a broader EU comprehensive response to increasing inflow of refugees into Europe across the Mediterranean, including other initiatives to address its root causes, including conflict, poverty, climate change and persecution.165 The mission’s vessels patrol the high seas between Libya and Italy, and its operational headquarters are based in Rome.

15.13Operation SOPHIA’s core mandate is to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and other assets being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers, contributing to its primary objective of disrupting the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean, and in doing so prevent the further loss of life at sea. The operation is meant to move through four phases of activities:

15.14The operation moved to phase 2 in the autumn of 2015, but has not yet been able to expand its activities into Libyan coastal waters.166 In June 2016, the Council extended Operation SOPHIA’s mandate until July 2017, and added two supporting tasks: training the Libyan coastguards and navy; and contributing to the implementation of the UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.167

15.15In December 2016, the Council adopted a Decision allowing the Mission to share information with third parties, in particular NATO.168 At the time, the new Minister for Europe (Sir Alan Duncan) informed the previous Committee of the latest figures relating to the Operation’s activities.169 He argued that SOPHIA had had “considerable success” since it launched in July 2015, “saving almost 29,000 lives, destroying over 330 smuggling vessels and arresting almost 100 suspected smugglers”.

Developments since December 2016

15.16At the European Council meeting of June 2017, the Prime Minister committed a UK ship to Operation Sophia until December 2018.

15.17On 13 July 2017, the Minister wrote to inform us that the European External Action Service had tabled a proposal for a Council Decision to extend Operation SOPHIA’s mandate from July 2017 until December 2018, as well as establishing a budget of €6 million (£5.5 million)170 for that period. Under the Athena mechanism for financing CSDP missions, the UK is expected to be liable for 16.7% (€1 million or £920.000) of the common costs.

15.18In addition, the draft Decision also aimed to set up a monitoring mechanism of trainees to ensure the long-term efficiency of the training of the Libyan Coastguard; give the Operation the authority to conduct new surveillance activities and gather information on illegal trafficking of oil exports from Libya;171 and facilitate exchange of information on human trafficking with Member States’ law enforcement agencies, as well as EU agencies FRONTEX and EUROPOL.

15.19The Minister for Europe (Sir Alan Duncan) submitted an Explanatory Memorandum on the proposal in which he describes, in some detail, the Operation’s objectives and its progress so far in achieving them.172 He writes that Operation SOPHIA between June 2015 and July 2017 had saved 38,000 people at sea (of which 12,000 by UK vessels), and that it has destroyed 463 smuggling vessels. He also notes that the initial phases of training the Libyan coast guard and navy have been completed, but that further training was delayed because the Libyan authorities were unable to pay their trainees a per diem.173 The Minister argues that the training provided by the EU will enable the Libyans to save more migrants at risk of drowning, ensure that individual officers act in conformity with human rights norms, reduce overall migratory flows and disrupt human trafficking activities.

15.20The day before we were informed of the proposed extension of the Mission until end 2018, the House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee published a report on Operation Sophia.174 In it, the Committee argued that the Operation had failed to achieve its objective of disrupting human trafficking in the region. In fact, it found that the practice of destroying smugglers’ boats had resulted in refugees being sent to sea in less seaworthy vessels, resulting in more deaths. The Committee recorded that Operation SOPHIA vessels had rescued over 33,000 people since June 2016, but that nonetheless the number of recorded casualties on the central Mediterranean route “increased by around 42% in 2016”.

15.21The report also concluded that “meaningful EU action” to disrupt human trafficking and smuggling necessitates action against those organising these activities on the ground in Libya. This, in turn, requires political stability and security in the country, which are unlikely to be established for some time yet. There is no single group that exercises effective control over all of Libya,175 armed clashes continue on multiple fronts, and basic amenities such as water, electricity and healthcare are frequently unavailable. Based on these findings, the House of Lords report recommended closure of Operation SOPHIA until the Libyan government could provide sufficient security for onshore operations, and replace the naval operation with a search and rescue mission for migrants at sea.176

15.22The Minister, in his Explanatory Memorandum on the extension of SOPHIA’s mandate, provides an initial response to the House of Lords report, arguing against closure. He said:

“Op Sophia’s primary goal is to break the business model of the smugglers and traffickers. HMG remains of the view that this is the right objective. The military assets deployed are the most effective means of gathering the intelligence and conducting the surveillance needed to develop an understanding of smuggling networks and patterns of operation. Moreover, it would not make sense to end the mandate while numbers crossing the Central Mediterranean continue to increase.”

15.23The Government’s formal response to the report was published on 14 September 2017.177 It again concedes that the operation “has not delivered all that we had hoped”, but that the UK’s contribution to Operation SOPHIA, and efforts to ensure its effectiveness, “remain an important part of a whole-of-government approach to addressing the migration challenge, including humanitarian assistance and action to tackle smugglers”. The Government also acknowledges that, in order to stem the flow of people trying to cross the Mediterranean, the priority needs to be “interventions upstream in countries of origin and transit”, which would “reduce the need of individuals and families to leave their home country or move on from a safe third country in their region”. It goes on to list various initiatives to achieve that objective in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

15.24With respect to the implications of Brexit for the UK’s cooperation with the EU on foreign and security policy matters, the Minister’s Memorandum on the extension of the operation’s mandate notes simply that “although we are leaving the EU, we remain committed to European Security and our future relationship with CSDP is subject to negotiation”.

15.25This ambition for continued cooperation was reinforced in the Government’s Brexit position paper on foreign policy, published in September, which offers a partnership “unprecedented in its breadth, taking in cooperation on diplomacy, defence and security, and development, and in its depth, in terms of the degree of engagement that the UK and the EU should aim to deliver”.178 With respect to the CSDP specifically, the paper notes:

“With this deep level of cooperation, the UK could work with the EU during mandate development and detailed operational planning. The level of UK involvement in the planning process should be reflective of the UK’s contribution. As part of this enhanced partnership, the UK could offer assistance through a continued contribution to CSDP missions and operations, including UK personnel, expertise, assets, or use of established UK national command and control facilities.”

15.26However, the Government has not clarified what institutional or legal mechanisms would need to be put in place by “Brexit day” to enable this partnership to function in practice.179 The UK will lose its representation on the Foreign Affairs Council and its associated bodies, in particular the Political & Security Committee (which coordinates the Common Security and Defence Policy). While non-EU contributions of personal and assets to specific CSDP activities is relatively straightforward (as participation by Norway180 and Switzerland181 in specific CSDP missions demonstrates), it is unclear in what way the UK could remain involved—on a case-by-case basis—in the detailed mandate development and operational planning of CSDP activities, and the preliminary discussions within the EU institutions that precede formal decisions by the Foreign Affairs Council to deploy personnel.

15.27The Council Decision extending Operation SOPHIA’s mandate to December 2018 was adopted on 25 July 2017.182 The Government overrode scrutiny, as there was no Committee in place at the time.

Our assessment

15.28We thank the Minister for his detailed Explanatory Memorandum, which provides a comprehensive overview of the Mission’s objectives and the Government’s assessment of progress made towards them. However, we share the concerns expressed in the House of Lords Report. 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy by sea in 2016, and we understand that the numbers are significantly higher so far in 2017 compared to the same period last year. We cannot avoid questioning the effectiveness of the Operation if it cannot keep the levels of human trafficking stable, let alone reduce them.

15.29While we agree with the Minister that “break[ing] the business model of the smugglers and traffickers” is a worthwhile objective, it does not follow that it is necessarily the right objective for Operation Sophia. As a naval mission, it manifestly cannot address the root causes of the explosion in both human trafficking and traditional smuggling from Libya, the primary one of which is the collapse of central state authority in the country. However, we take note of the fact that the Member States have unanimously supported the latest extension of the operation.

15.30We ask the Minister to keep us informed of any further EU initiatives to bring peace and stability to Libya, in particular the launch of a CSDP mission as and when conditions in Libya allow. We also ask him to share with us the outcome of the next review of Operation Sophia (and in particular whether the Council would extend its mandate again beyond December 2018).

15.31With respect to the Council Decision to extend the mandate of Operation Sophia until December 2018, we note the Government’s override of scrutiny in July. We consider this acceptable as the Operation’s mandate would have had expired before the Committee would have been able to consider the proposed Council Decision.

Implications of Brexit

15.32We must also place the UK’s contribution to Operation SOPHIA in the context of Brexit. Although the Minister has clearly expressed the Government’s support for Operation Sophia, and the Government has committed a ship until December 2018, it is unclear whether it will seek to remain associated with the operation after the UK ceases to be an EU Member State (should the Operation, or a successor mission, still be active in March 2019).

15.33More pressingly, although it has been nine months since the Government sent the notification under Article 50 TEU, it has only set out its ambitions for post-Brexit cooperation with the EU on foreign policy and security matters, but not realistic proposals for their delivery. A smooth transition to the new relationship in this area will depend heavily on a clear statement of expectations and commitments from both sides, as well as the necessary institutional arrangements to replace the UK’s withdrawal from the Foreign Affairs Council and its preparatory bodies.

15.34We would therefore like the Minister to clarify how the “unprecedented” foreign policy partnership sought by the Government will be given shape in practice. In particular, we would like more information on the institutional framework, and any accompanying reciprocal legal obligations, that would be necessary by “Brexit day” to enable this partnership to function in practice.183 If the UK is to continue participating throughout the life cycle of particular CSDP missions and operations including mandate development and operational planning, it is paramount that Parliament is aware of the structures that will facilitate such close cooperation. It is likely that continued, post-Brexit scrutiny of EU foreign policy making would remain necessary in such a scenario.

Previous Committee Reports

First Report HC 342–i (2015–16), chapter 2 (21 July 2015), Seventh Report HC 342–vii (2015–16), chapter 1 (28 October 2015), Ninth Report HC 342–ix (2015–16), chapter 1 (18 November 2015), Twenty-first Report HC 342–xx (2015–16), chapter 10 (27 January 2016); and (37881): Seventh Report HC 71–v (2016–17), chapter 17 (6 July 2016).


155 The operation was rechristened ‘SOPHIA’ in 2015, named after a baby born to a Somali woman aboard a German vessel which had rescued her and 453 others in the Mediterranean.

157 Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (13 July 2017), p. 2.

158 House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on External Affairs, “Operation Sophia: a failed mission“ (12 July 2017).

159 Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (13 July 2017).

160 The Government reiterated this position in its response to the House of Lords report, published on 14 September 2017.

163 The operation was rechristened ‘SOPHIA’ in 2015, named after a baby born to a Somali woman aboard a German vessel which had rescued her and 453 others in the Mediterranean.

165 Other elements of the strategy include, for example, the new European Fund for Sustainable Development which was formally established in September 2017.

167 See Council Decision (CFSP) 2016/993 of 20 June 2016.

168 See our predecessors’ Report of 18 January 2017.

169 The Minister wrote in relation to a Council Decision allowing SOPHIA to share information with third parties, in particular NATO. See our predecessors’ Report of 18 January 2017.

170 £1 = €1.336, or £0.8821 = €1 as at 31 October

171 See UN Security Council Resolutions 2146 (2014) and 2362 (2017).

172 Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (13 July 2017).

173 This has now been resolved through voluntary donations by EU countries, including €695.000 (£640.000) by the UK.

174 House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on External Affairs, “Operation Sophia: a failed mission“ (12 July 2017).

175 There are several competing political structures aiming to take control of Libya, including the internationally-recognised Presidency Council in Tripoli, the Islamist General National Congress (GNC) and the National Salvation Government (NSG), the latter two are located in the west of Libya.

176 House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on External Affairs, “Operation Sophia: a failed mission“ (12 July 2017).

179 For example, the Norwegian Government notes with respect to its cooperation with the EU on foreign policy that “When the EU agrees on common positions and declarations on current foreign policy issues, Norway is invited to align itself with these positions and declarations, which, in the vast majority of cases, it does”.

180 Norway is participating in current civilian CSDP missions in Ukraine, Kosovo, the Palestinian Territories and the Horn of Africa.

181 See for example: Participation Agreement between the European Union and the Swiss Confederation on the participation of the Swiss Confederation in the European Union CSDP mission in Mali (EUCAP Sahel Mali).

183 For example, the Norwegian Government notes with respect to its cooperation with the EU on foreign policy that “When the EU agrees on common positions and declarations on current foreign policy issues, Norway is invited to align itself with these positions and declarations, which, in the vast majority of cases, it does”.




15 December 2017