Europe under pressure to co-ordinate response to Red Sea crisis

Brussels discusses a new EU mission to the region but details remain unclear

A Houthi fighter stands on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, which was seized by the Yemeni rebels in the Red Sea. Reuters
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US-led strikes against the Houthis in Yemen have highlighted the EU’s muddled response to the Red Sea crisis as the bloc's diplomats meet on Tuesday in Brussels to discuss a mission to protect international shipping in the region.

“There is clearly a need for some sort of protection of international shipping in the Red Sea,” an EU diplomat told The National.

Discussions about the shape of this mission are expected to continue for the coming weeks, with a possible approval next month.

The EU response to the conflict in Gaza has so far been weakened by internal divisions.

They have persisted as the conflict expands to the Red Sea after the Houthis' announcement that they would attack what they claim are Israel-linked commercial ships to try to pressure Israel into a ceasefire in Gaza.

This has caused ocean freight rates to climb as many ships choose a longer route around South Africa.

In response to close to 30 Houthi attacks since November, the US launched a naval mission to the Red Sea named Prosperity Guardian.

The coalition of more than 20 countries aims to deter such attacks by intercepting drones and escorting commercial ships.

But some EU countries such as Spain said they would not join the mission, despite the US publicly listing them as taking part last month.

"The EU could decide … in a few days' time that there should be a mission,” Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles said on Friday.

“We do not yet know the scope if that mission is approved, but in the meantime Spain's position out of a sense of responsibility and commitment to peace is not to intervene in the Red Sea.”

Other EU countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have proved stronger backers of the US response in the region.

Both countries joined Prosperity Guardian and publicly supported Thursday's US and UK bombardments on Houthi military sites, which were followed by more US strikes.

The Netherlands was the only EU country to provide military support in non-combat form, in addition to sending two staff officers to Prosperity Guardian.

Germany, one of the EU's most important movers, is not part of Prosperity Guardian but provided political support to the strikes, which is an initiative that remains separate from the US-led naval mission.

"The violent attacks by the Houthis on civilian merchant ships are a flagrant breach of international law and massively interfere with the security of international shipping and the freedom of navigation," a representative of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs told The National.

"They endanger global trade routes and harm German and international security interests. They are completely unacceptable and must stop immediately."

The representative confirmed that EU countries were "currently discussing options for a defensive EU-mission to protect international shipping and freedom of navigation for maritime security in the Red Sea".

Uneasy middle ground

Yet France, the EU country with the most military influence in the Red Sea, seems to have tried to strike an uneasy middle ground.

The French Foreign Affairs Ministry on Friday published a press release that condemned the Houthis but made no mention of the overnight US and UK strikes.

This appeared to be an attempt at indicating that its non-participation in the military operation did not imply support for the Yemeni group, said former French ambassador to Syria Michel Duclos.

“Paris probably believes that strikes would encourage further escalation without solving the issue, while also feeding into the perception that Israel is favoured by the West,” Mr Duclos told The National.

“This proved partly right. The US has had to continue bombarding Yemen.”

A lack of endorsement of the US military response in the Red Sea by powers in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt might also be one of the reasons behind the hesitation of France and other EU countries, he said.

Analysts have said the Houthi attacks are an opportunistic move aimed at raising the group's profile in the Arab world.

But many of its drones fall into the sea without reaching their target, which is often chosen based on erroneous information linking it to Israel, said UAE-based Rear Admiral Emmanuel Slaars, joint commander of French forces in the region.

Admiral Slaars told a news briefing on Thursday that France is part of Prosperity Guardian but retained control over its own forces and that there was “no subordination” to the US.

Yemenis protest in Sanaa after US and UK hit Houthi sites - in pictures

“There seems to be a desire among Europeans to distance themselves to the US administration’s response to the [Gaza] conflict,” said Jean-Loup Samaan, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

Yet Brussels seems also to be catching up with the sense of urgency caused by the escalation in the Red Sea.

For the first time, the Houthis on Monday attacked a US destroyer ship, but the missile was shot down by an American fighter jet.

Meanwhile, Qatar has paused sending liquefied natural gas through the Red Sea, Bloomberg reported.

Qatar LNG accounted for about 13 per cent of Western European consumption last year.

Diplomatic gesturing

Two options, almost identical, are under consideration in Brussels, The National understands.

One would be setting up a completely new dedicated EU mission in the Red Sea. Another would be to expand a pre-existing French-led naval mission in the region, which is called Agenor.

Launched in 2020, Agenor is supported by nine European countries but is not an EU mission, which would imply the backing of its 27 members.

So far, 37 ships have been involved in the mission, which also includes a French military patrol aircraft and an Italian military drone, according to its website.

It would need full EU backing and important military investments to respond to the current tension and show willingness to become more active in the region, said Mr Samaan.

“So far, Europe’s response has been more about diplomatic gesturing than concrete military involvement,” he said.

There has no public announcement on the matter yet as diplomats hash out technical details.

Contacted by The National, the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry said that discussions were “ongoing” and for this reason, it was unable to comment on how an EU-led mission would take shape or work alongside Prosperity Guardian.

Should either European option succeed, it would be introduced with a significant delay of several months more than the US one.

This is yet another signal that a stronger geopolitical Europe, promised by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when she took office in 2019, is “not quite ripe yet", said Mr Duclos.

Updated: January 16, 2024, 6:14 AM