EU agrees new mission to enforce Libya arms embargo

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell talks to journalists during a news conference following an European Foreign Affairs meeting at the Europa building in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 17, 2020. (AP)
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Updated 17 February 2020

EU agrees new mission to enforce Libya arms embargo

  • Most EU governments want to uphold UN arms embargo
  • Austria says sea mission will bring more migrants to Europe

BRUSSELS: EU foreign ministers agreed Monday to a naval operation to enforce an arms embargo on war-torn Libya, overcoming objections from countries who feared it may encourage new migrant flows.
The mission will be authorized to intervene to stop arms shipments, EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrell said, insisting the vessels would not be “having a promenade” in the Mediterranean.
The EU hopes to have the operation, focused on the eastern part of the Libyan coast, up and running by the end of March, Borrell said, though many details — including the rules of engagement for naval units — are yet to be worked out.
The conflict in the oil-rich but turbulent North African state was on the agenda for EU ministers meeting in Brussels, but Borrell had played down hopes of an agreement over objections from Austria and Hungary.
Making the arms embargo work is seen as crucial to stabilising the Libyan conflict.
Military commanders will propose many of the operational details, including the number of ships and the exact geographical scope, for EU foreign ministers to approve at their next meeting on March 23.
The EU hopes the new mission — which replaces Operation Sophia, set up in 2015 to fight people smuggling across the Mediterranean at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis — will be up and running by the end of March.
Austria had led opposition to reviving Operation Sophia with ships to enforce the embargo, fearing it could reactivate a rescue fleet that would end up ferrying migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Hungary, whose right-wing populist government has taken a tough anti-immigration stance, is understood to have supported Austria’s objections.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and his Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg insisted the new mission was quite different from Sophia.
“There is a basic consensus that we now want a military operation and not a humanitarian mission,” Schallenberg said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said there had been a long discussion about whether a naval element was needed but finally it was agreed it was “necessary to get a complete picture.”
“But it will be only in the eastern Mediterranean, where the weapons routes run,” Maas said, not near the current central Mediterranean migration routes.
Crucial to winning over skeptics like Austria was a provision that if the ships are deemed to be creating a “pull factor” — encouraging migrants to take to the sea in the hopes of being rescued and taken to Europe — the maritime part of the operation will be halted.
Borrell said that precise details of who would decide on this were still to be agreed, but it would likely be foreign ministers acting on the advice of military commanders.
A senior UN official warned Sunday that a fragile truce in Libya agreed in January but regularly breached is “holding by a thread.”
World leaders agreed at a Berlin summit last month to end all meddling in the conflict and stop the flow of weapons into Libya, but little has changed on the ground since then.
States including Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, while the weak UN-recognized government led by Fayez Al-Sarraj is backed by Turkey and Qatar.
“The arms embargo is being violated systematically and this is going to feed the fighters with an incredible amount of arms that make the cease-fire difficult and the truce very, very weak,” Borrell warned.
After a meeting of foreign ministers in Munich on Sunday — a follow-up to the Berlin conference — Borrell criticized Austria for blocking the Operation Sophia revival, saying it was absurd for a landlocked country which does not even have a navy to take such a stance.

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

Updated 39 min 24 sec ago

Tehran mayor sees ‘threat’ in Iranians’ dissatisfaction

  • The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year

TEHRAN: Iran’s low voter turnout reflects a wider malaise in a country long buckling under sanctions and more recently also hit hard by the coronavirus, spelling “a threat for everyone,” Tehran’s mayor Pirouz Hanachi told AFP.

“The turnout at the ballot box is a sign of people’s satisfaction level,” said Hanachi, mayor of Iran’s political and business center and largest city, with more than 8 million people.

“When there is dissatisfaction with the government or the state, it then reaches everyone and that includes the municipality too,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.

Iran has suffered the double blow of a sharp economic downturn caused by US economic sanctions over its contested nuclear program, and the region’s most deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

Reformists allied with moderate President Hassan Rouhani lost their parliamentary majority in a landslide conservative victory in February, in a major setback ahead of presidential elections next year.

Voter turnout hit a historic low of less than 43 percent in the February polls after thousands of reformist candidates were barred from running by the Islamic republic’s powerful Guardian Council.

Such voter fatigue “can be a threat for everyone, not just reformists or conservatives,” warned the mayor, a veteran public servant with a background in urban development who is tied to the reformist camp.

The conservative resurgence reflects dissatisfaction with the Rouhani camp that had sought reengagement with the West and the reward of economic benefits — hopes that were dashed when US President Donald Trump in 2018 pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The International Monetary Fund predicts Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent this year.

“We’re doing our best, but our situation is not a normal one,” Hanachi said. “We are under sanctions and in a tough economic situation.”

As he spoke in his town hall office, the shouts of angry garbage truck drivers echoed from the street outside, complaining they had not received pay or pensions for months.

The mayor downplayed the small rally as the kind of event that could happen in “a municipality in any other country,” adding that the men were employed not by the city itself but by contractors.

Iran’s fragile economy, increasingly cut off from international trade and deprived of crucial oil revenues, took another major blow when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit in late February.

Since then the outbreak has killed more than 12,000 people and infected over 248,000, with daily fatalities reaching a record of 200 early this week, according to official figures.

A temporary shutdown of the economy in recent months and closed borders sharply reduced non-oil exports, Iran’s increasingly important lifeline.

This accelerated the plunge of the Iranian rial against the US dollar, threatening to further stoke an already high inflation rate.

In just one impact, said Hanachi, the Teheran municipality lost 2 trillion rial ($9 million) because of sharply reduced demand for public transport in recent months.

As many Tehran residents got back into their cars to avoid tightly packed subways and buses, this has done nothing to help solve Tehran’s long-standing air pollution issue.

Tehran has had only 15 “clean” air quality days since the March 20 Persian New Year, according to the municipality.

One of Hanachi’s tasks is to fight both the virus and air pollution — a tough juggling act as car travel is safer for individuals but also worsens the smog that often cloaks the capital.

The mayor said he worried that, after restrictions on car travel were reimposed in May to reduce air pollution, subways are once again packed during peak hours, as is the bustling city center.

Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, which is now crowded with shoppers, warned Hanachi, “can become a focal point for the epidemic.”