In the light of the refugee drama in the Mediterranean, the meeting of EU Foreign and Defence Ministers on Monday (18 May) focused on joint European action. In addition to stepping up sea rescue operations, the joint multi-phase strategy provides for improved intelligence concerning the situation in the Mediterranean. Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier and Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen stressed that the crisis had complex causes and that the EU would have to respond in a wide range of spheres.
“The world is beset by crises in the Middle East and in North Africa – and the refugee flows around the world are a result of this,” stated Foreign Minister Steinmeier together with Defence Minister von der Leyen after the meeting in Brussels.
Germany supports improved sea rescue operations
The reason for this joint meeting of EU Foreign and Defence Ministers was the urgent quest for European responses to the refugee disaster in the Mediterranean. It reached a tragic climax just over three weeks ago when around 800 refugees drowned after their boat capsized not far off the Libyan coast. On 20 April, the EU Foreign and Interior Ministers subsequently adopted concrete measures to tackle the refugee drama.
First and foremost, this includes improving sea rescue operations. Germany immediately stated its readiness to provide more assistance: at present, two German navy vessels are taking part in the sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Since joining the operations, the frigate “Hessen” and the task force support vessel “Berlin” have already saved more than 700 people in the Mediterranean. Defence Minister von der Leyen announced in Brussels that the two vessels will continue to take part in operations indefinitely for the time being.
Strategy for an EU mission in the Mediterranean
Foreign Minister Steinmeier made it clear that improved sea rescue operations could “not be the only response”. The problems could not be tackled with “just one single measure”. The EU consultations in Brussels on Monday focused above all on an EU mission within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). In the first phase, the strategy includes plans for a more precise assessment of the situation in the Mediterranean.
The German Foreign Minister commented on this in Brussels in the afternoon:
We are now talking about two elements: firstly, improved sea rescue operations and, secondly, a CSDP mission which would enable us to start various phases with better intelligence-gathering on the situation in the Mediterranean.
However, Steinmeier continued, such a multi-step mission would require further conditions of a legal and practical nature to be clarified. In particular, this concerned the issue of a UN mandate in the form of a Security Council resolution.
Combating the causes of flight
However, Steinmeier and von der Leyen also made it clear that it was crucial to combat the causes of flight. They both emphasised the importance of development cooperation. The social and economic structures in the countries of origin and transit would have to be bolstered. For example, ways would have to be found to strengthen cooperation with countries of origin such as Niger and Mali.
In the morning, Foreign Minister Steinmeier called for further efforts to bring the UN’s mediation talks in Libya to a successful conclusion and to initiate the formation of a government of national unity. Without political stabilisation in Libya, a transit country, the waves of refugees could ultimately not be halted.
Steinmeier and von der Leyen also dampened expectations that a quick-fix solution could be found to this complex problem. The Foreign Minister continued:
There is no easy solution, something which many are possibly hoping for at present. We must not mislead anyone. Rather, we have to make it clear that we will be dealing with this problem for a long time to come and that we must remember that the measures just adopted will take time.