Defence-only naval force reflects deepening EU divisions

An improvement in Red Sea security will largely depend on whether Israel will be forced to stop its war on Gaza

The EU naval mission will help provide security for shipping in the Red Sea but will not partake in air strikes on Houthis in Yemen, who vow to stop attacks when Israel ends its war on Gaza.
Pep Boatella
The EU naval mission will help provide security for shipping in the Red Sea but will not partake in air strikes on Houthis in Yemen, who vow to stop attacks when Israel ends its war on Gaza.

Defence-only naval force reflects deepening EU divisions

Creating a dedicated European Union naval protection force to operate in the Red Sea may help 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 Iranian-backed 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.

The British government's proposal to support US military operations in the area by deploying its new 65,000-tonne HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier has had to be shelved after it was revealed that 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.

Other major European powers 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.

Read more: Defence-only EU force in Red Sea shows break with US-UK strategy

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 with the aim to facilitate merchant shipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the southern approach to the Suez Canal and one of the world’s busiest trade routes.

Pep Boatella

Under the terms of an agreement approved by EU ministers on 19 February, the European Union Naval Force (EUNVFOR) has established a new mission under the codename Operation Aspides—Greek for “shield”—to support global efforts to provide security for shipping in the Red Sea.

France, Greece, Germany, Italy, and Belgium are among the countries offering to provide naval assets for the mission. The mission will be out of Larissa in central Greece, which is home to the Hellenic Air Force and also serves as a NATO headquarters.

The operation’s mandate seeks to balance the different approaches among European countries, which generally favour a more defensive approach to that taken by the US and UK.

Defence-only mandate

As EU officials made clear when formalising the establishment of the new naval force, it will not take part in any military strikes and will only operate at sea.

“Within its defensive mandate, the operation will provide maritime situational awareness, accompany vessels, and protect them against possible multi-domain attacks at sea,” EU headquarters said in a statement after the bloc’s foreign ministers had endorsed the mission.

“The entire global economy is being hit. It’s not just European ships that are repeatedly jeopardized by Houthi missiles in the Red Sea, but the entire international shipping industry,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters in Brussels.

She said that apart from protecting European ships, the mission “makes it clear that we as an international community stand together in the face of attacks, terrorist attacks on the freedom of the sea lanes.”

The new EU force will also draw on existing EU military missions in the region. The operation will place several warships from member states' navies operating under EU command.

EU officials made clear that its naval force would not take part in air strikes on Houthis and would only operate at sea.

France and Italy already have warships in the region, while Germany has ordered the frigate Hessen to sail from the North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven to participate in the mission following approval from the German parliament. Belgium has also offered to contribute a frigate to the mission.

European divisions

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 mission, 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 the initial plans for the force in early February, 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 would not take part in any military strikes and would 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.

The planned EU action is primarily a response to European business leaders who are concerned about the trade implications of forcing merchant ships to bypass the Red Sea on their way to and from Europe. 

Many major shipping companies have opted to reroute their vessels via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa rather than risking the Suez Canal.

A container ship belonging to the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) transits the Suez Canal towards the Red Sea on 22 December 2023.

Ships owned and operated by European companies (e.g., Denmark's Maersk) have been among those targeted by the Houthis since the war erupted.

"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, a significant number of EU leaders are reluctant to support even this limited mission, with the majority of EU countries proving reluctant to do so.

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

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.

Deepening unease about Israel's war

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 relentless war on 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 has killed more than 30,500 Palestinians.

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

The reluctance of many European countries to partake in military action against the Houthis reflects their deepening unease over Israel's war on Gaza.

The deepening divisions between the EU and the US over the Gaza crisis has also led to strains in the transatlantic alliance, with Borrell responding to US President Joe Biden's comment in mid-February that Israel's military response in Gaza was "over the top" by calling on Washington to scale down its arms supplies to the Jewish state.

"If you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide fewer arms in order to prevent so many people having been killed," Borrell said in what amounted to a direct attack on the Biden administration's support for Israel.

"If the international community believes that this is a slaughter, that too many people are being killed, maybe we have to think about the provision of arms," Borrell added.

The tensions between Europe and the US over Gaza are likely to be reflected in their different approaches to providing security in the Red Sea, with the US taking the more aggressive approach of attacking Houthi targets on the mainland while the EU confines its operations to safeguarding shipping.

The Houthis claim they are only conducting their attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea in support of Hamas and have indicated they will end the attacks once a ceasefire in Gaza has been implemented.

A Houthi helicopter flies over the cargo ship Galaxy Leader as Houthi fighters walk on the deck of the ship in the Red Sea on 20 November 2023.

Read more: Western states mull options as Houthi attacks continue in Red Sea

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 effect 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.

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.

The Iran factor

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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