Europe could snub US with go-it-alone Red Sea mission

EU countries lukewarm on Pentagon's 'highway patrol' plan amid Houthi attacks on shipping

The US says it has a 'coalition of the willing' ready to protect Red Sea shipping - but Europe could go its own way. Reuters
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As Houthi attacks escalated in the Red Sea, the White House announced in mid-December that a 20-country “coalition of the willing” would use its naval muscle to protect shipping.

The response from America’s western allies, however, has been lukewarm, casting doubt on whether the naval “highway patrol” will be as potent as the Pentagon hoped.

Italy has distanced its Red Sea frigate from the US operation, while Spain is unwilling to take part despite Washington saying it would and Germany is still weighing up whether to offer two ships armed with air defence rockets.

EU countries are now considering whether to launch their own Red Sea mission, officials in Spain and Germany have said, as the bloc increasingly tries to display military clout independently of Washington.

“It is important that we as the EU are able to act as quickly as possible in view of the ongoing attacks,” said a German Foreign Ministry representative, who said Berlin was ready for a European mission even as it debates the US option.

Among container carriers, major players such as Switzerland’s MSC are not sufficiently reassured by the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian to send ships back into the Red Sea.

The cool response reflects wariness in Europe about using up military resources, submitting to US command and the ongoing danger to Red Sea shipping.

It also comes with European countries increasingly pushing to contain the Middle East conflict, while US President Joe Biden continues to back Israel in its war with Hamas.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militants have vowed to attack Red Sea shipping until Israel ends its bombardment of Gaza, prompting mariners to take a detour around Africa that adds to costs and journey times.

The Red Sea route is used by roughly a third of container ship cargo and costs per unit have risen about 15 to 25 per cent since the Houthi escalation, according to estimates by freight platform Xeneta.

The US operation is meant to reassure commercial shipping and “assist as necessary”, the Pentagon said. The US, UK and France say their navies have shot down drones coming from Yemen.

Taking part … or not

The US claimed that “more than 20 nations have signed on” including Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain.

Some have confirmed their support, including the UK, which deployed Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer HMS Diamond, while the Dutch and Canadian militaries sent personnel to help the mission. Australia is also sending staff to Bahrain.

But the claim Spain was involved soon foundered, when its defence ministry said it “will not participate” and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez rejected an alternative plan to sail under the umbrella of an EU anti-piracy mission.

Mr Sanchez said he is open to creating a new EU task force for the Red Sea, as the bloc increasingly tries to assert strategic independence from Washington. Any such agreement would take time and need consensus from all 27 member states.

Italy too played down its participation. While the missile-equipped frigate Fasan Virginio has been sent to the Red Sea, defence chiefs issued a memo insisting it was not part of Operation Prosperity Guardian.

Although the announcement followed talks with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, the vessel was already in the Middle East and its deployment to the Red Sea came at the “specific request” of Italian shipowners, the ministry said.

France says its frigate Languedoc has shot down drones and prevented the hijacking of a Norwegian oil tanker, but it too clarified that its sailors “remain under national command” even as it welcomed the US announcement.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been one of the most vocal European leaders in pushing for strategic autonomy from the US after the wars in Afghanistan and Ukraine exposed Europe’s reliance on Washington.

The Pentagon did not reveal whether it expected Germany to join the Red Sea mission, but its three Sachsen-class frigates are regarded in Berlin as potentially suitable because they were built with an emphasis on air defence.

However, one is in the shipyard for repairs, another is just returning from a Nato mission in the Baltic Sea and German officials are debating whether to deploy them or focus more on logistical help.

“It would achieve nothing to just deploy destroyers and frigates, but you always need logistics, leadership, intelligence and other capabilities that can be made available,” a defence ministry spokesman said.

Shipping industry cautious

Reaction from the shipping industry has also been mixed. Denmark’s Maersk called the US mission “most welcome” and said it would enable ships to return to the Red Sea.

Switzerland’s MSC, by contrast, said on Tuesday it would continue to reroute vessels via the Cape after container ship MSC United VIII was forced into “evasive manoeuvres” when it came under attack en route to Pakistan.

Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd said on Wednesday it would continue to avoid the Suez Canal because “the situation remains too dangerous”. French company CMA-CGM said it was planning a “gradual increase” in Red Sea traffic.

Shipping expert Lars Jensen said in an online post that the decision on whether or not to sail for the Suez Canal was “increasingly a competitive parameter amongst the carriers”.

Using the Red Sea may lower costs and have political advantages but “it is also a risk”, he said.

“A sudden deterioration would mean that carriers who are sticking to round-Africa will continue to offer stable, but longer, services to their customers whereas carriers now using the Red Sea would once more create major disruptions to their customers’ supply chains.”

Updated: December 28, 2023, 2:00 PM