The European stance towards maritime navigation security in the Bab al-Mandab Strait

The European stance towards maritime navigation security in the Bab al-Mandab Strait

Between the announcement of several European countries joining the “Guardian of Prosperity” alliance declared by the United States to protect maritime navigation in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the subsequent withdrawal of some of those countries, many questions have been raised about the European stance towards the alliance and the impact of these threats on European interests. What are the limits of European contribution to maritime operations outside Europe? While the United States announced the establishment of the alliance on December 18, 2023, with several European countries including France, Italy, and Spain as members, official sources from these three countries declared just a week later that their forces would not operate under US command but under their national leadership. This doesn’t mean the collapse of the alliance but rather a divergence in perspectives, which can be explained by three main factors:

Firstly, while maritime threats are a common danger faced by global nations, including Europe, the issue is also linked to the idea of European autonomy. France has long advocated for European countries to find a European security alternative and reduce reliance on NATO. However, this issue lacks consensus within the European Union itself. While French and Italian statements ensured that their forces would only operate under their national command, Spain stated that it would only operate under NATO’s umbrella. Additionally, when the European Union announced on January 12, 2024, its intention to discuss the possibility of sending a European naval force to assist in protecting ships in the Red Sea from Houthi attacks in Yemen, the Spanish Defense Minister announced that Spain would not participate in such a force if established.

Secondly, alliances always aim to counter threats, and in the case of the Bab al-Mandab, the primary threats are from the Houthi group and Iran’s involvement. However, European policy often seeks to avoid direct confrontation with Iran. This is evidenced by the fact that when the United States announced the establishment of the Maritime Security Alliance in the Arabian Gulf in 2019, European countries did not join. Instead, France announced the establishment of the European Maritime Surveillance Mission in the Strait of Hormuz in 2020, supported by seven European countries and based in Abu Dhabi. However, it was noted that this is not a military mission like the American alliance; its mission is solely to raise awareness among ships about the risks to maritime navigation in the strait.

Thirdly, the participation of US forces in military alliances abroad doesn’t face difficulties, but for the European Union, parliamentary approval for such participation is necessary. Within the EU itself, there are differences in views on these issues.

However, this doesn’t mean that the threats in the Bab al-Mandab Strait do not represent a challenge to European interests. Approximately 40% of international trade passes through the strait, including 12% between Europe and Asia. Any disruption or obstruction of navigation through the Bab al-Mandab and then the Suez Canal will lead to an increase in commodity prices in European countries by 10-15% due to increased shipping and insurance fees. This means that European countries would be the biggest losers if maritime navigation threats in that region worsen.

The reality is that despite restrictions on deploying European forces outside the continent, Europe has not been far from all maritime military operations. During the determined effort led by President Reagan’s administration to protect oil tankers during the Iraq-Iran war, the success of that operation was only possible with military assistance from European partners. At the peak of American intervention in that war, there were 40 ships from Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. The British navy alone participated in protecting 1026 crossings since joining that alliance in 1987. Some opinions within Europe suggest that it contributes about 40% of maritime assets to American naval operations in the Middle East.

On another front, following several UN Security Council resolutions to counter piracy off the coasts of Somalia and the Horn of Africa in 2008, including Resolution 1816, which called for naval forces to be sent to the region as part of international efforts, the European Union participated in Operation Atlanta, a military operation carried out by the European Union Naval Force. Furthermore, in March 2020, the European Union’s military naval mission, Operation Irini, began its work in the Mediterranean Sea in accordance with UN decisions regarding the arms embargo on Libya. The European Union announced the extension of its work until March 31, 2025.

Despite the importance of the above, in my estimation, all military operations by the United States and its European allies in various regions of the world reflect three problematic aspects. The first is that despite agreement on the size of threats and risks, there are three tracks: those of the United States, NATO, and the European Union. The major dilemma faces the European Union because despite the multiple proposals and plans to establish a unified security identity, it has not succeeded. Instead, the war in Ukraine has reinforced the need for those countries to join NATO as a security umbrella for limited military support to Ukraine and deterrence.

The second problem arises not only from the issue of security identity but also from regional security problems. Europe used to coordinate nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western countries before the end of 2022, and thus did not want to be directly confronted with Iran. The third problem lies not in the participation or non-participation of the European Union or NATO, but in the cornerstone of that participation. Threats alone are not enough from the perspective of the two organizations, but there must be UN resolutions as a basis for participation, similar to those issued to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia and the Horn of Africa, as well as in the case of Libya.

However, this does not mean that some European countries are not individually engaged in efforts to secure maritime navigation in that region, including France, which is a member of the Code of Conduct related to the suppression of piracy and armed robbery against ships and maritime illegitimate activities in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, which includes 21 countries from the Gulf and Africa. France is the only member from outside the region.

While the participation of European countries, whether through the Union as an organization or individually in naval military operations outside their territories, is an important development regarding the role of the European Union in maintaining international security and peace alongside the United States, the global system has not yet resolved the issue of forming alliances for a simple reason: the United Nations does not have an army to implement its decisions.

Note: This article has been automatically translated.

Source: Akhbar Alkhaleej

Dr. Ashraf Keshk, Senior Research Fellow

Related posts