The EU launches today its first-ever naval operation, with six warships and three surveillance planes patrolling pirate infested seas in the Horn of Africa.
The EU vessels face the daunting task of covering an area of around 1 million square kilometers, in waters that have seen nearly 100 ships attacked by pirates this year.
And the mission’s ability to serve any meaningful purpose — beyond a deterrent role — remains under a cloud, with critics saying the only way to beat piracy is to start the battle on land, in lawless Somalia.
For a year, vessels from at least eight countries — Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden — will escort aid ships and carry out anti-piracy duties under British Admiral Phillip Jones.
With a headquarters in Northwood near London, the fleet will initially be led off the coast of Somalia by Greek Admiral Antonios Popaioannou, with a Spaniard and then a Dutch officer taking over after three month terms.
While the EUNAVFOR Atalanta mission officially starts today — taking over from four NATO vessels in the waters — it is unlikely to be up to full strength before the end of the month.
“We have responsibility there to escort, and to deter, and to protect, and those things are going to be done with very robust rules of engagement,” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said on Wednesday, at NATO headquarters.
Those rules of engagement will be endorsed by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels today.
The challenge is formidable.
More than a dozen foreign merchant vessels and their crew are currently being held by gunmen in the area where the northeast tip of the Somali coast juts into the Indian Ocean.
The pirates, heavily armed and using high-powered speedboats, prey there on a key maritime route leading to the Suez Canal through which an estimated 30 percent of the world’s oil transits.
The European Community Shipowners’ Association said that it has asked the EU to pay particular attention to boats that it deems “vulnerable,” either because they are too slow or too low in the water, allowing easy boarding.
Another problem is the legal puzzle that arises once pirates are captured.
Only a few navies can actually catch and try suspects, and of those none are keen to do so except on a case by case basis. On top of that, EU nations cannot turn them over to countries where they might face the death penalty.
France, for instance — which holds the EU’s rotating presidency — is a historic maritime power but laws on piracy were cleaned out of its penal code in October last year and it will have to reintroduce them.
Beyond these dilemmas, ships alone are unlikely to do the job.
Experts and officials in the region say the only way to combat the problem is to attack the roots, by tackling the poverty and insecurity in Somalia itself.
“You don’t stop piracy on the seas. You stop piracy on the land,” NATO’s top commander General John Craddock said last week.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin agrees.
“The pirates are not fish who just sprang up out of the sea,” he said.
“They came out of Somalia. It is far-fetched to try to clamp down on piracy without first having put the situation in mainland Somalia under control,” Mesfin said.