Disagreement over Red Sea naval mission reflects EU divisions

EU countries increasingly uneasy over Israel's brutal assault on Gaza are reluctant to participate in military action against the Houthis which further complicates their efforts to reach a ceasefire.

Disagreement over Red Sea naval mission reflects EU divisions

Plans by European Union member states to launch their own naval protection mission in the Red Sea may help to improve security along the key shipping route, but it also exposes the deep divisions that exist among European leaders about how best to respond to the threat posed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Ever since the Iranian-backed Houthis began targeting shipping in the Red Sea in response to Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, the main burden of protecting international shipping in the region has fallen mainly to the US, which has an aircraft carrier battle group operating in the area.

The UK, too, has participated in attacks against Houthi targets in Houthis, but its contribution has been limited to air strikes conducted from the Royal Air Force base in Cyprus because British warships based in the area do not have the capability to launch attacks against land-based targets.

Proposals by the British government to support US military operations in the area by deploying its new 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier have had to be shelved after it was revealed the ship has problems with its propeller shaft, making it unable to operate effectively in an active war zone.

Apart from the US and UK, the only other Western country that has so far been involved in military action against the Houthis is France, with one of its frigates involved in shooting down a number of Houthi drones in January.

The Europeans only want to undertake defensive missions which would not involve attacks against land-based targets.

Other major European powers, such as Germany, have so far refrained from becoming involved in direct military action against the Houthis, fearing it could lead to a major escalation in tensions in the region.

They have opted instead to back diplomatic efforts to arrange a ceasefire in Gaza, with the Houthis claiming they would stop their attacks in the Red Sea if such an agreement were implemented.

European leaders have additionally been backing the creation of an EU naval mission to protect shipping in the Red Sea aimed at facilitating merchant shipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the southern approach to the Suez Canal and one of the world's busiest trade routes.

Proposals for establishing an EU naval force are already said to be well-advanced, with final approval for its implementation due to be given at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on 19  February.

According to Western diplomats, France, Greece, and Italy have shown interest in leading the mission, with several countries from the 27-member bloc indicating they would be willing to deploy warships to the regions. The new EU force would also draw on existing EU military missions in the region.

The operation would initially see three vessels under EU command. France and Italy already have warships in the region, while Germany plans to send the Hesse frigate to the area.

Sharp differences

But while the formation of the EU force is a welcome addition to global efforts to improve security in the region, it has also exposed sharp differences in the way the Europeans intend to deal with the security challenges posed by the Houthis and the approach currently being undertaken by the current US-UK approach, which is codenamed Operation Prosperity Guardian.

While the US and British military have launched a series of strikes against Houthi targets based in Yemeni territory, the Europeans only want to undertake defensive missions which, while seeking to protect shipping, would not involve attacks against land-based targets.

As Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief made clear when outlining plans for the force earlier this month, the EU mission to protect commercial vessels from Iran-backed Houthi rebel attacks in the Red Sea will be "purely defensive" and will not conduct "any kind of attack."

Addressing reporters before chairing a meeting of EU defence ministers in Brussels, Borrell insisted that the EU mission — dubbed Aspides, from the Greek for "shield" — will not take part in any military strikes and will only operate at sea.

"This is the purpose: protection of the ships. Intercepting of the attacks against the ships. Not participating in any kind of action against the Houthis. Only blocking the attacks of the Houthis," he said.

Many EU leaders are reluctant to support even this limited mission. So far, only Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and Italy say they will support it.

Greek Defence Minister Nikos Dendias indicated at the meeting that his country was prepared to offer the new mission its base at Larissa as an operational headquarters for the operation, which hosts the Hellenic Air Force and NATO headquarters in Greece.

The planned EU action is primarily a response to European business leaders who are concerned at the trade implications of forcing merchant ships to bypass the Red Sea on their way to and from Europe, with many major shipping companies now opting to reroute their vessels via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa rather than risking the Suez Canal. 

"Many European firms asked us to do that because their business model is suffering a lot due to the high increase in cost and having to go down to South Africa," Borrell explained. "It's affecting prices, it's affecting inflation. So, it's a natural endeavour for us to try to avoid this risk."

Even so, many EU leaders are reluctant to support even this limited mission, with only five countries - Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and Italy— so far indicating their willingness to support it.

"Not all member states will be willing to participate, but no one will obstruct," Borrell predicted.

Unease over Israel's Gaza offensive

The EU initiative to form its own naval protection force in the Red Sea has been prompted by the concerns of some European leaders about the idea of being under Washington's command.

The reluctance of many European leaders, moreover, to become directly involved in military action against the Houthis is a result of their deepening unease about Israel's uncompromising military offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

While, in the immediate aftermath of the 7 October attacks, European leaders declared their support for Israel's right to defend itself, they have been increasingly concerned at the scale of Israel's response, which is said to have claimed around 27,000 Palestinian lives.

This has led EU leaders instead to focus their efforts on arranging a lasting ceasefire for the Gaza conflict. Participating in military action against the Houthis will only, in their view, further complicate their ceasefire efforts.

The Houthis claim they are only conducting their attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea to pressure for a ceasefire.

Independent from US-UK mission

Efforts by EU leaders to create their own naval force that can operate independently of the more robust military response undertaken by the US and UK against the Houthis indicate the EU's attempts to form its own defensive infrastructure.

Previously, the EU has mounted its own naval operations to tackle the threat posed by Somali pirates, as well as targeting illegal migrant smuggling operations in the Mediterranean.

Whether the creation of a specific EU force to protect international shipping from Houthis will have the desired effort of improving security in the Red Sea will depend to a large extent on whether global efforts to reach a ceasefire in Gaza are successful and whether the Houthis can be trusted to end their attacks if such an arrangement is implemented.

The EU has previously mounted its own naval operations to tackle the threat posed by Somali pirates, as well as targeting illegal migrant smuggling operations in the Mediterranean.

Domestic and regional motives

While the Houthis enjoy the backing of Iran, the Houthi leadership also has its own political agenda and often operates independently of its allies in Tehran.

There have been reports recently that one of the main motivations for the Houthis deciding to launch attacks against shipping in the Red Sea has been the need to raise their profile at a time when support for their cause has been declining in Yemen.

Iran is another important factor that could lead to the continuation of attacks against shipping in the Red Sea.

Although Iran claims it does not control the Houthis directly, it has nevertheless called on its supporters in the region to maintain the pressure on the US and its allies as part of its long-term campaign to diminish Washington's standing in the region. And that could continue long after any ceasefire is implemented in the Gaza Strip. 

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