Europe meets new geopolitical challenges in an evolving Mediterranean. BM columnist Arvea Marieni in conversation with Admiral Fabio Agostini, head of the EU Operation IRINI
Hamburg (Brussels Morning). The energy transition is linked to energy geopolitics. And one should recall that Europe’s periphery has several politically unstable energy providers whose social, economic, and political stability depends on being part of Europe’s energy transition. To take stock of the challenge at hand and reflect on future scenarios for Libya, Brussels Morning sat down on Tuesday for an exclusive interview with the head of the EU Operation IRINI, Admiral Fabio Agostini.
To maintain peace in the Mediterranean, the EU must take its green revolution beyond its borders. Forward-looking policies will have to provide viable economic alternatives for the region’s oil-dependent countries, but in order to avoid new wars, poverty, and mass migration, military force becomes a necessary part of the equation.
Fast-tracked de-carbonisation means that our mental map of Mediterranean geopolitics will be reconfigured and re-conceptualised. The end of oil and gas is inevitable. According to the latest International Energy Agency report published on Tuesday, “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway beyond projects already committed as of 2021.”
Libya, Africa’s largest oil field, is a crossroads for the interests of European energy companies. Until now, oil has been the lifeline of the Libyan economy. As Corrado Clini, a former Italian Minister for Environment noted in a recent article, “Libya, like Tunisia, can be a ‘solar mine’ for Italy and Europe”.
The technologies to exploit Libya’s solar energy potential are largely available. Through large-scale construction of photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants, Libya could become an exporter of clean electricity, powering the European grid.
The large investment in the infrastructures needed to replace fossil exports would boost the Libyan economy and improve the lives of Libyans, creating development opportunities that do not depend on the control of oil and gas fields.
More than a year ago, a new European geopolitical consensus on Libya was forged in Berlin. In moving beyond the military stalemate between the internationally recognised government in Tripoli and the Benghazi-based Haftar regime, in August 2020, Europe facilitated a new political roadmap leading towards elections.
Diplomacy and soft power, however, are not sufficient.
Military power is often necessary to enforce peace. This is the case for Libya, where the embargo on arms declared by the UN Security Council has long remained a dead letter. In the last year, however, things have begun to change in this respect as well.
Arvea Marieni (AM) – Good morning Admiral Agostini. In looking beyond the management of the current crisis, I would like to talk about the security dimension of the transition away from the oil economy, in a discussion that bridges security and defence, and that looks at how post-fossil energy geopolitics may be framed. Before we start, let me thank you for agreeing to share your insights with Brussels Morning.
Admiral Fabio Agostini (FA) – It’s my pleasure. Security and geopolitics have multilayered borders. In today’s world, which becomes every day more complex, the level of interdependency grows and every state or organisation needs what I call an “augmented reality” strategy, capable of encompassing all aspects of many, intertwined problems. I am very interested in complex thinking which, in the end, is also the basis for military analysis and conflict strategy.
AM – Now that I have developed my analysis, let’s dig into it together. Admiral, the first question is de rigeur. What is IRINI?
FA – The European Union Naval Force Mediterranean Operation IRINI (EUNAVFOR MED IRINI) is a European Union military operation under the umbrella of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). IRINI was launched on March 31, 2020, with the aim to implement the United Nations arms embargo to Libya. The operation uses aerial, maritime and satellite assets from several EU countries. IRINI marks a qualitative step forward for the European Union’s security policy in an area, that of the “enlarged Mediterranean”, which is crucial for our geopolitical and geostrategic interests.
AM – The EU is traditionally not a military actor. Its strengths lie in capacity building, a shared system of values and the economic dimension of its actions. This is the EU soft power. Often, single members states have acted “unilaterally” in pursuit of national interests. A common geopolitical European position requires the definition of European common interests. Some doubt EU interests even exists. This is not what I think, but I am interested in your views as the Commander of an EU military mission. What is your opinion in general and specifically in relation to Libya?
FA – The main peculiarity of EU foreign action is its “holistic” approach to the resolution of crises, regional or global as these may be. Europe is sharpening its identity as a relevant geopolitical actor. This reflects in a more decisive stance also in security issues. The Covid crisis, as we can see, has accelerated processes that were happening, but at a much slower pace. In many fields, Europe has achieved results that were unthinkable before the pandemic. I really want to point out to some simple facts. When the Berlin Conference on Libya was convened in January 2020, the EU spoke with one truly European voice.
AM – You mention the mindset shift induced by Covid. In many ways, the crisis of the coronavirus is comparable, albeit of lesser importance, with the twin crises of climate and the environment. The conclusions are the same as those you have drawn, global threats must be dealt with by concerted actions at global level.
FA – From a military perspective, climate change and environmental crises are considered today as security and strategic challenges together with more traditional ones. It is universally recognised that climate change, the consequent loss of food chain productivity, or water crises, will inevitably lead to more poverty, more local conflicts, and mass migration from neighbouring countries. In some ways this is already happening and requires us to reflect deeply on the priorities of security.
AM – The political vision behind Operation IRINI, as has been made clear by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Borrell, reflects the holistic approach – you used this word earlier – agreed at the Berlin Conference. The recent experience on the ground in Libya is that when the guns stop firing and the time comes for politics and diplomacy, the EU is the significant and most capable actor in the region. This, I see, is also a consequence of the fact that the United States in recent years has shown little interest in events in the Mediterranean and Libya in particular.
. The EU has primary and immediate interest to act, in cooperation with all who participated in the Berlin Conference on Libya. As Operation Commander of EUNAVFOR MED IRINI, I wish to point out that while IRINI is not the solution to the Libyan crisis, nonetheless it’s an essential tool to this end. There are never purely military solutions to crises, yet no crisis can be solved without the use of military means. You are right to quote EU HR/VP Borrel’s words. Indeed, the road to peace requires a comprehensive, holistic approach that includes four dimensions. In diplomatic jargon we call them tracks. The process consists of military, economic, diplomatic, and political tracks. All contribute to the solution. But without controlling the illegal flow of arms, the smuggling of oil and goods, and without reducing the flow of militiamen and foreign fighters in the country, the other tracks cannot be completely effective.
AM – It seems that you are satisfied with the results of the mission despite recent, harsh criticism by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya.
FA– Thanks for this question that allows me to clarify something important. The report you refer to was written extensively using the information provided by IRINI about violations of the arms embargo. The claim that the embargo was not effective therefore refers to the fact that many UN member states are responsible for failing to comply with Security Council resolutions and not on the effectiveness of the IRINI Operation.
Clearly, I won’t claim that IRINI is perfect. We can do much better, but we already achieved a lot. In the last ten months, EU assets, ships, planes, and unmanned aircraft have patrolled the Central Mediterranean, investigating more than 2,300 ships, visiting more than 100 merchant vessels, and conducting 13 inspections. These are remarkable results for a mission that is only one year old, considering we achieved full operational capability only in September 2020 because of the difficult start due to the pandemic. This positive assessment is broadly shared by the EU, which recently renewed IRINI’s mandate until March 31, 2023. The decision of the Council followed a strategic review process carried out under scrutiny of EU member states that exercise political control and strategic direction through the Political and Security Committee (PSC). The EU is satisfied with IRINI. Our tasks remain almost unchanged. In primis, the implementation of the arms embargo imposed by the resolution of the Security Council.
AM – Cooperation among all EU missions and institutions is key to the success of the peace process. State building and capacity building are necessary steps. I can see synergies are indeed happening on the ground. The EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) in Libya, the civil “twin” of Operation IRINI, is also headed an Italian, Natalina Cea, and is responsible for strengthening border control capacity. Like IRINI, EUBAM is tasked to train Libyan personnel. Do you see IRINI cooperating with EUBAM on training the Libyan coastguard?
FA – Ms Natalina Cea is a very competent and experienced official. The fact that she is Italian like me is a sign of the importance that Rome attaches to the stability of Libya and to the recognition of the role that Italy has had over time in the Mediterranean theatre. Certainly, Italy had and still has an important role to play in the region. Both Natalina Cea and I, however, represent the EU’s broader interests. I can confirm that we are exploring avenues for further cooperation between IRINI and EUBAM, under the broad guidance of the EEAS and the EU Delegation to Libya.
AM – The Deputy Head of the EU Delegation, Nadim Karkutli, in a recent webinar talk with you said that synergies are being activated not only between EU institutions, but also with the EU capitals more directly invested in the Libyan conundrum.
FA– This is true. And this is another reason why I think we are making progress. The EU seems really on the way to becoming a first-tier foreign policy actor. To return to a fully sovereign Libya — to return Libya to the Libyan people — we need to make sure that state- building is achieved for this country. For too long, the lack of fully effective institutions has allowed the proliferation of illicit activities, such as oil smuggling, human trafficking, and terrorism. If we want to discuss the state of play and operations and view our role in terms of the stability process, I can say that right now, we are still in a situation where we need a continuous military presence in the maritime domain to ensure sufficient security in the Mediterranean Sea. This is a strategic area for the EU where different relevant geopolitical actors are active and determined to pursue their national interests. But beyond the goals of individual actors, a stable Libya should be everyone’s objective. The end of the crisis would improve the welfare of the Libyan people, increase security in the area, restart the economy and reduce migration flows, which would be to everyone’s advantage. To make sure this happens, the EU has taken a more active and assertive stance in the area. The launch of IRINI is a consequence of this more assertive EU. It is worth mentioning that this political decision was taken unanimously by the EU Council. Another sign of the EU’s unity in this matter.