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EU Mediterranean migrant mission at risk of collapse

August 30, 2018

A row over accepting migrants took central stage during a meeting of European Union defense and foreign ministers. Italy is threatening to pull the plug if its demands are not met.

EU's Sophia mission
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Lami

Italy called for immediate changes to the EU's Operation Sophia during the EU-wide summit of defense and foreign ministers in Vienna on Thursday. Rome, which currently commands the naval effort, wants other EU states to open their ports and allow migrants to disembark on their territories.

Following the Tuesday meeting, EU defense ministers pledged their support to the mission, but no one offered their ports as disembarkation sites.

With little immediate sign of a compromise in sight, the row could jeopardize the EU's anti-trafficking mission in the Mediterranean.

What is the Sophia row about?

  • Operation Sophia was launched in 2015 after a series of fatal shipwrecks in the Mediterranean involving migrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
  • The mission's mandate is to combat people-traffickers sending migrants on dangerous voyages.
  • Twenty-six EU countries are involved in the mission, which is currently under Italian command.
  • Migrants rescued at sea disembark at an Italian port.
  • The Italian government, led by a new populist coalition of the League and 5 Star Movement, wants the EU to change the rules to allow ships to also dock in neighboring countries 
  • Rome is threatening to close its ports to the Sophia mission if its demands are not met by next week.

Read more: Italy threatens to block ships from EU's Mediterranean migrant mission

Infografik Comparison of migrant landings in Italy EN

Reactions at the conference

  • Italian Foreign Minister Elisabetta Trenta reasserted it was "no longer possible" for Italy to take in all of the migrants, and that revamping the system could not wait for the end of the current mission mandate in December. "We think it's too long to wait and should be done immediately," she said,
  • The EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini said that the body was still considering new solutions, including opening new ports and also redistributing migrants after they land in Italy. Losing "Sophia" would be a "major step back" for the EU, the migrants, and the security of the Mediterranean.

Why Vienna was seen as an opportunity: Italian authorities have been repelling migrants rescued at sea in a bid to pressure the 28-nation bloc to accept more responsibility for the crisis. Last week, Rome threatened to cease billons of euros over the row. Recently, Italy only allowed some 140 stranded migrants to disembark after Ireland and non-EU member Albania agreed to take some of them. "The ball will be in the EU camp: by accepting our proposal it will have the opportunity to show it is a real community of values and intentions; by refusing it will deny its own fundamental principles," Italian Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta wrote on Facebook on Wednesday.

The EU's standpoint: In line with international law, the EU insists that migrants rescued by the bloc's naval mission in the Mediterranean must be brought to a safe port. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen appealed to Italy not to hijack Operation Sophia. "It is also a question of credibility and the reliability of the European mission. We brought it into being. It runs until the end of the year. And it must continue until the end of the year," she told reporter

According to DW correspondent Barbara Wesel, the EU defense ministers "feel blackmailed" by Italy over Operation Sophia. A lack of consensus among the EU states could put an end to sea recuses for migrants coming from Libya, said Wesel.

Read more: UN calls for EU and Italy to end migrant standoff

What happens after the Vienna meeting? As the impasse continues, the issue will probably end up with the EU heads of state and government at their summit in Salzburg on September 20.

dj/kms  (AFP, Reuters)

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