EU Plans "Pilot Case" Maritime Security Mission for Gulf of Guinea

Mogherini, right, answers questions about the proposed maritime security mission (European External Action Service)

Published Aug 29, 2019 6:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

In response to the recent security challenges in the Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman, EU nations have discussed the possibility of a naval "observer" mission to monitor developments in the region. On Thursday, European Commission high representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini said that the first test run for a new EU overseas "coordinated maritime presence" will occur in a different hot zone - the Gulf of Guinea.

"We decided to try to finalize technical work . . . for a first pilot case in which we can use it. We mentioned the Gulf of Guinea as a first test we could have of this mechanism that would be very light," she said, speaking after a meeting of EU member nation defense ministers in Helsinki. "It would be in addition to the traditional military operations that the European Union has and can continue to have in the future."

The "first pilot case" would not be the first time that the EU has deployed a joint maritime security force on a mission in international waters. EU NAVFOR Operation Atalanta began combating maritime piracy off Somalia in 2008, and it continues this mission today. Operation Sophia, the EU naval counter-migration mission in the Mediterranean, launched in 2015 and is due to phase out at the end of September. However, the new "coordinated maritime presence" structure would be different, Mogherini said: each participating EU nation would contribute its assets to the mission voluntarily, and those assets would remain within each nation's respective chain of command - not under a joint EU command. 

The Gulf of Guinea is the world's most dangerous region for maritime piracy, especially for kidnappings. About a quarter of all piracy incidents reported worldwide occurred in waters off Nigeria in the first half of the year, according to the IMB ICC Piracy Reporting Center. Given the severity and persistence of the Nigerian piracy problem, shipping interests have petitioned Western governments to deploy maritime security assets to the region to ensure safety of navigation. The Spanish Navy deployed one patrol vessel to the area earlier this year, and it successfully interdicted two hijackings in April and May

Mogherini said that a deployment to the Strait of Hormuz was not the first choice of EU nations, given the complex geopolitical currents found in that waterway. The United States has assembled its own coalition for a maritime security operation in the strait, in cooperation with the UK and Australia. The nations of the EU27 - notably France and Germany - have so far declined to participate. The EU opposes the U.S. policy of exerting "maximum pressure" on Iran's government, and German foreign minister Heiko Maas cited the U.S. posture towards Iran when he turned down an American request to join the naval mission in July.

That skepticism appeared to be on display once more on Thursday. "I would say that, from the discussion today, there was a general consensus on the fact that the first pilot case . . . would rather be a different situation and a different area from the Strait of Hormuz. I would not exclude that that could be an option in the future but, again, it is definitely too early to say," Mogherini said.