The Operation Irini started two years ago with the goal of contributing to re establish stability in Libya. This exclusive interview of the French Rear Admiral Jean de Muizon, Deputy Operation Commander since December 2021, allows us to understand all the aspects and insights of the European Union Naval mission.
Admiral, first of all, may you introduce yourself, explaining your position in Operation IRINI chain of command?
I am Rear Admiral Jean de Muizon, my background includes several years as a pilot and squadron commanding officer on the aircraft carriers, commanding officer of a French frigate, numerous tours in multinational operations and several assignments at the French Joint Operational Command. Since December 2021, I am the Deputy Operation Commander (DCOM) and the French Senior national representative (SNR) for operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI at the EU Operational Head Quarters based in Rome.
My primary duty is to work closely with the Operation Commander and the Command Group on the shaping and the conduct of the Operation at the strategic level. This would include inter alia:
- Strategic engagement with the Member States, the EU political and diplomatic level and other key stakeholders, in order to understand their level of expectations or restrictions regarding the strategic and operational objectives and determine the possible courses of action for the Operation accordingly,
- Strategic assessment of both the political and security environment as well as the effects we are achieving in the Area of Operation and in the field of perception, in order to permanently adjust the conduct of the Operation, and propose to the political level options for possible mandate review if required,
- Engagement with Key Leaders from the various stakeholders involved in the Operation’s environment, such as the shipping industry, Non-Governmental Organizations and UN bodies, for shared awareness and understanding.
Being his deputy, I also assume the OPCDR’s responsibilities for the daily conduct of the Operation when he is not available.
Finally, as the French SNR, my primary role is both to explain and promote the French positions regarding the Operation and the EU Policy, to make sure that the French assets are being used in accordance with our national requirements or restrictions, and to engage with all the other SNR in order to better understand their national views and strategic goals.
After two years IRINI has been in effect, what is your assessment of the result of the operation?
IRINI started two years ago in order to support the Berlin process, with the goal of contributing to re establish stability in Libya and pave the way for diplomatic and political solutions. Its core task is to enforce the arms embargo off the coasts of Libya, while secondary tasks include the monitoring of oil trafficking, the contribution to the disruption of the human smuggling business model and the building of a Libyan Coast-Guard capacity. Despite the challenging context of the covid-19 pandemic, IRINI managed to reach its full operational capability in September 2020 with its first boarding and ship diversion. As of today, IRINI has conducted 22 inspections at sea based on UN resolutions, has hailed more than 6 700 vessels sailing in its area of operation, has recommended 64 in-port inspections of ships by Member States, has documented over 850 suspicious flights and has conducted more than 300 friendly approaches onboard merchant vessels.
Beyond having ensured an active presence in the Central Mediterranean, therefore building an extensive maritime situational awareness, the operation has made every effort to implement a credible and balanced maritime interdiction posture off the Libyan coasts. This permanent stance is assessed as having had a significant deterrent effect on arms trafficking towards Libya through maritime routes as, according to UN reports, maritime violations of the embargo have drastically reduced since 2020.
Moreover, thanks to the extensive information gathered in our 36 classified Special Reports, IRINI has provided the EU and the UN with substantial elements on those actors who do not comply with the UN arms embargo or conduct other illegal activities and therefore continue to fuel instability in Libya. Based on these reports, in 2020, the EU took two batches of sanctions against some non EU maritime companies.
I also would like to highlight that IRINI’s contribution must be put in the broader context of the EU’s integrated approach for peace and stability in Libya which includes other EU or non EU missions and organizations. In this perspective, and as stated by Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, IRINI, being the only military actor to implement the UN arms embargo, has been a crucial tool for allowing the EU diplomacy to accompany the cease-fire agreement and to contribute to setting the conditions for a possible permanent solution to the Libyan crisis.
However, today, state and non-state actors still continue to have a negative impact on the security situation. That is why we must remain extremely focused on countering illicit trafficking, which fuels instability and prevents the political dialogue to effectively progress.
What are the next challenges for the Operation?
The immediate challenge for the operation is to continue to implement the arms embargo with an impartial stance, despite the degradation of the political situation in Libya, which now faces the simultaneous existence of two different governments, and more broadly, the changing regional security architecture resulting from the war in Ukraine. As always the operation is focused on maintaining a credible and balanced maritime interdiction posture with the assets provided by the Member States.
The next challenge is to renew the commitment of the international community for the implementation of the arms embargo. This directly links with the upcoming renewal of the UNSC resolution on which IRINI’s mandate is based. The resolution’s vote is to take place on June 2nd, and we may not totally exclude some form of obstruction by Russia considering the nature of its current relationship with the EU.
Another main challenge is to keep developing our network of partners and to further engage with the relevant stakeholders of the region. In particular, we are looking forward to resume our cooperation with NATO, with which we share the same goal of stability in Europe’s neighborhood.
One other crucial aspect that has not been achieved yet is to resume our cooperation with Libyan authorities, in order to implement our comprehensive capacity building and training plan to the benefit of the Libyan Coast Guards. Unfortunately, the currently fragmented political situation in Libya does not allow such actions at the moment.
Finally, based on EU standing procedures, together with the relevant EU bodies in Brussels, we will be conducting a Strategic Review by the end of this year. This will be an occasion to reassess the political and security environment as well as the effects we have been achieving, and to possibly propose new tasks for IRINI’s mandate.
To what extent the IRINI Operation contributes to the stability and security in the Mediterranean Basin?
IRINI’s goal is to contribute to stabilization efforts in Libya through a European integrated approach intended to support the Berlin process. Therefore, IRINI works with EU and non-EU partners to favor the return of proper state governance in Libya. But the stakes are even bigger because stabilizing this country will have many broader positive consequences for the Mediterranean Basin, but also for Africa.
Besides, the Operation has developed strong relationships with the international maritime community that now perceives IRINI as a reliable maritime security provider in the central Mediterranean area. As a very concrete illustration, IRINI has conducted more than 300 friendly approaches onboard merchant vessels in order to raise awareness, share best practices, and exchange about the issues mariners encounter in the area.
Finally, the continuous presence of EU naval and aerial assets in the central Mediterranean allows maintaining a daily situational awareness, shared with other regional actors, which is very helpful to better understand what is happening on the Southern flank of Europe.
Would you say IRINI helps to build the future European Defence?
IRINI is the most important CSDP operation with direct implications for Europeans’ awareness of security issues in the Mediterranean. In total, it gathers more than 700 militaries from 24 Member states who work together on a daily basis, towards a common goal. This multinational environment allows European militaries to develop a better understanding on how to operate together, on our own, and how to improve it. Therefore, it contributes every day to build a more credible European Defense.
Put simply, through EUNAVFOR MED IRINI we can read the clear ambition of European Member States to take concrete actions for the defense of European security and interests in the direct vicinity of the “old continent”.
As a French admiral, could you explain us what is the contribution of France in IRINI Operation and more generally in CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy)?
As one of the main military player in Europe, France is engaged in many operations in support of national or common security. However it is also very determined to play a central role in CSDP operations. This is clearly demonstrated by the French contribution to this operation. From the first day of IRINI, France has contributed with both naval and aerial assets, as well as Navy officers at the Operational HQ in Rome and onboard the Italian or Greek Flag Ship with the Force HQ.
In the area of operation, French contribution is reflected by the deployment of corvettes such as the Commandant Blaison, currently operating in direct support since April 25th. France also contributes with different types of aircrafts on an ad hoc basis in order to complement the other Member-states’ contributions, and provides associated support with naval and air assets conducting other operations in the area. As a whole, the French Navy brings very well trained crews and boarding teams that can be quickly integrated in the EU Task Force 464 and it is the third contributor to IRINI after Italy and Greece, the two framework nations.
France also contributes decisively to other CSDP operations, holding several top positions, such as Deputy Commander of operation ATALANTA, promotes other ad hoc EU Maritime security initiatives in the Gulf of Guinea and the Indian Ocean within the framework of the EU Coordinated Maritime Presence, and contributes to many EU training missions around the world.
There is a clear message here: France strongly supports Europeans’ ambitions to ensure our collective defense.
Last question, what were the consequences of the Ukrainian crisis on Operation IRINI?
Since March 2022, IRINI has carried out a continuous assessment of the strategic situation in Ukraine and its consequences in the Mediterranean, in order to better foresee how this volatile environment could develop and affect the conduct of the Operation as well as the security of the assets provided to us by the Member States.
The outbreak of the war in Ukraine immediately resulted in a higher concentration of NATO and Russian warships in the Mediterranean area, sometimes sailing close or even within the borders of our area of operation. Our main initial challenge here has been to find a posture where we could continue to execute the embargo mission and other tasks without creating any misunderstanding or putting our assets in some unwanted confrontational situation.
A range of strategic options have been planned and discussed with the EU political level in order to be prepared to anticipate and react to whatever posture Russia may develop towards our EU units.
Other strategic side effects that could lead to adjust our mandate have also been addressed. The Ukraine crisis may have second and third order consequences with the development of traffics of all kinds, as well as increasing food insecurity and economic fragility in North Africa and the Middle East. Those factors could further destabilize Libya, which is known to be an historical platform for various traffics, and could encourage more people to migrate towards Europe.
This final assessment highlights once again the key importance of the central Mediterranean for European security and the crucial need for the Europeans to address this challenge at the proper level.