Foreign Minister laments 'ineffective' EU anti-smuggling operation in central Mediterranean

Carmelo Abela tells EU colleagues in Luxembourg that a drop in the EU's central Mediterranean surveillance mission is making human traffickers more daring

Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela with Helen McEntee, Irish Minister of State at the Foreign Ministry
Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela with Helen McEntee, Irish Minister of State at the Foreign Ministry

A decrease in surveillance by the European Union's central Mediterranean military operation is encouraging smugglers and traffickers to be more daring, Malta's Foreign Minister has warned.

Carmelo Abela told EU colleagues that the absence of EUNAVFORMED's naval assets in its area of operation is not helping maintain security in the Mediterranean.

Speaking at an EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg City on Monday evening, Abela had harsh words on what he said was the "relative ineffectiveness" of the Union's anti-smuggling effort, Operation SOPHIA.

He underlined that the operation was of strategic importance. Operation SOPHIA was set up in 2015 to contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smugling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranran and prevent further loss of migrants' lives at sea.

Taking a cue from the sixth South EU Summit held in Valletta last Friday, Abela pointed out that an important element of the Valletta Declaration issued at the end of the summit was that security in the Mediterranean Sea was crucial for Europe's security and stability.

"The aerial operations being conducted as part of Operation SOPHIA are relatively ineffective to break the smugglers' models. We are noticing a surge in the number of crossings, therefore an increase in human trafficking - we are risking more tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea," Abela said.

He added: "Less surveillance in the area is encouraging smugglers and traffickers to be more daring in their operations. Reinforcements of aerial surveilance are warranted in the Central Mediterranean route, even in the early morning, when most of the departures happen, at least over the summer period."

Abela stressed that, this being an EU-wide challenge, it was only through solidarity and a combined effort and responsibility sharing by all stakeholders that the issue could be addressed.

The EU foreign ministers also discussed ways to improve the effectiveness of the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

Noting that, over the past years, the CFSP has been strengthened considerably, Abela suggested that the EU should make better use of its leverage when it comes to interacting with third countries.

"Partnerships should be based on conditionality, as this would allow us to obtain the desired results," he said, as he encouraged closer cooperation on the CFSP amongst Europe's institutions and between the institutions and member states.

For a portion of the Council meeting, the foreign ministers were joined by the bloc’s defence ministers for a comprehensive discussion on the Union’s Global Strategy, three years after its launch. They took stock of progress made and reflected on future perspectives. Ministers may give guidance on the next steps, in particular on the priorities.

The foreign ministers also discussed the situation in Sudan, in light of recent developments in the country. Over lunch, they had an exchange of views with Jordanian Foreign Affairs Minister Ayman Safadi, focusing on recent developments in the Middle East.