Spain and France are filling the would-be maritime defence void left after Britain exits the European Union in eight short months. France, Europe’s largest military power alongside Britain, will team up with neighbour Spain, an up-and-coming European defence power situated directly across from North Africa, as the two take responsibility for the EU’s naval anti-piracy mission.
EU diplomats agreed at the end of July to move the European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) Operational Headquarters from Northwood in southeast England to Rota, a town in southwest Spain that already hosts Spain’s biggest naval base. Brest, a town in western France, will be given the Maritime Security Centre Horn of Africa (MSCHOA), which was established by EU NAVFOR to assist in Operation Atalanta, the anti-piracy mission in the Horn of Africa.
The mission, the first-ever EU naval operation, was launched ten years ago with a focus on protecting Somalia-bound vessels belonging to the World Food Programme and AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, as well as other vulnerable shipments and general fishing activity in the region. Since then, the scope has been expanded to include monitoring of Somali coastal territories and internal waters, and coordination of counter-piracy operations with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and regional administrations. The EU is also working to strengthen the maritime capacity of regional navies.
With up to 95 percent of EU member states’ trade by volume transported by sea and 12-20 percent of global trade passing through the Gulf of Aden north of Somalia, Operation Atalanta has been key in protecting trade through this region.
Additionally, since the operation was launched, the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean has fallen from a peak of 176 in 2011 to just seven in 2017. Only one piracy attack has been recorded since the beginning of 2018.
Thus, the EU has a keen interest in keeping the mission alive after Britain leaves the union. Spain, for its part, has been eyeing control of the mission for some time. In a letter last November, the country warned of China’s rising military presence in the Horn of Africa and, consequently, the importance of Operation Atalanta. In April, the country’s special forces put on a show called Operation Sarunia to exhibit to EU diplomats how they would confront pirates trying to take over fishing boats.
Spain’s bid for the mission was aided by French support. While France wants to retain Britain as a close military ally after Brexit, it acknowledges that it also needs new military partners to help fill the soon-to-be British defence void in the EU. Spain, for its part, has made clear its intent to become a greater EU defence power, even hoping to replace Britain as one of the EU’s military operational headquarters, along with France, Germany, Greece, and Italy. Thus, the Spanish-French bid for the EU’s anti-piracy mission was a natural choice.
Italy had also entered a bid to host the mission, which currently uses the Italian frigate ITS Carlo Margottini as its flagship warship, although the mission also involves the Spanish patrol vessel ESPS Meteoro and a Spanish surveillance plane. Italy’s bid was concentrated on creating a unified maritime command, given that the country already hosts the command headquarters for Operation Sophia, the EU’s anti-migrant smuggling mission in the Mediterranean. Ultimately, Italy was denied. However, according to EU diplomats and officials, an accord was reached between the two Southern European countries in which the Spain offered more naval support in fighting migrant smuggling in the Mediterranean (something Italy has long asked for from other EU Member States), in exchange for Italy’s support of the Spanish-French bid for Operation Atalanta.
The transfer to Spain and France of the EU NAVFOR and its Operation Atalanta, along with MSCHOA, will be complete on March 29, 2019, Britain’s official last day as a member of the EU. On that same day, Spanish naval officer Vice Admiral Antonio Martorell Lacave will take over as the new Operation Commander, replacing the current British chief, Major General Charlie Stickland.
The mandate for the mission has been extended to December 31, 2020, and will receive more than 11.7 million euros for the common costs of the operation for January 2019 through December 2020.