Gesine Weber unpacks European maritime security cooperation in the Red Sea, exploring the prospect of further forms of involvement in the area.
The security crisis in the Middle East has a direct impact on maritime security in the Red Sea. In the last weeks, attacks on military as well as civilian vessels, mostly from the Houthi rebels in Yemen, have multiplied. These attacks do not only constitute a concrete threat for individual ships crossing the Red Sea, but also the freedom of navigation in the region in general.
In total, 12% of global trade passes through the Suez channel. Companies are increasingly choosing to ship their goods to Europe via the alternative route, around the Cape of Good Hope, which comes with considerable costs. It increases shipping times by around 10 days, which directly impacts turnaround times in major European ports, and increases fuel costs by $1 million for round trips between Europe and Asia, in addition to higher insurance costs.
As these routes are so vital for European trade, the EU – including the UK until Brexit – has been involved as a security provider in the Red Sea for several years. The EU mission ATALANTA was launched in 2008 in the north-western Indian Ocean to protect vulnerable vessels, fight against piracy, and disrupt illicit maritime flows.
And maritime security concerns are not confined to the Red Sea. Europeans have increasingly endorsed the importance of the Indo-Pacific region for European security, which was, for example, visible in the EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, Indo-Pacific strategies of individual EU member states, and the UK’s ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific in the 2021 Integrated Review.
The most important recent example of European maritime security action is the European-led Maritime Awareness Mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH), which was launched in 2019 in reaction to a multiplication of maritime and non-maritime incidents in the Strait of Hormuz (the only open sea passage from the Persian Gulf). Its military component, AGENOR, operates from the French naval base in Abu Dhabi; seven European states participate in the mission directly, and two more support the diplomatic track. Albeit not a direct part of the mission, the UK’s Royal Navy closely coordinates with its international partners through its operation Kipion, the UK’s mission to promote regional maritime security in the Gulf and the Indo-Pacific.
In response to the intensification of recent incidents in the Red Sea, the UK and four EU member states (France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain) have joined the United States’ mission Prosperity Guardian, launched in mid-December 2023 to ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. With strikes from the Huthi rebels on commercial and military targets in the Red Sea intensifying in recent weeks, the US and the UK have launched air strikes on Huthis targets in Yemen. According to the UK government, these strikes constitute self-defence and aim ‘to degrade Houthi military capabilities and protect global shipping’.
While EU member states have been present in the Red Sea for some years, there is no consensus on potential European engagement at the moment – which also reflects the absence of a European consensus on the war in Gaza. For the moment, only the Netherlands have provided non-operational support to the US and UK strikes, while Denmark and Germany are the only other EU member states that co-signed the statement issued by several states after the strikes. At the same time, Spain has expressed its hesitation about extending the mandate of ATALANTA to the Suez Canal. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josepp Borrell, has floated the possibility of launching of a new mission alongside ATALANTA. Following this week’s meeting of the the EU’s Political and Security Committee, EU sources indicate initial backing for an EU mission in the region, which will be further discussed at the foreign ministers’ meeting later this week, and could become operational in mid-February.
Given the disagreements among EU member states on their position on Gaza and the regional dynamics more broadly, the exact scope and form of EU engagement in the region are, however, a politically challenging decision. The divergent votes of EU member states in the UN resolutions calling for a ceasefire as well as national statements on the conflict underline that any EU action in the region is a balancing act, and therefore often based on the lowest common denominator rather than high ambitions. Besides a ‘classical’ mission under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), there are other formats that could be an option to enhance European action in the Red Sea, and these could also include the UK.
Article 44 of the treaty of the European Union allows member states to delegate a task of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to a group of able and willing member states. This option allows for what could be called an ‘intra-EU coalition of the willing’, keen to engage in a certain aspect of the CSDP, to benefit from EU support structures without binding those who are more reluctant.
As member states generally agree on the importance of the freedom of navigation and securing trade routes in the Red Sea, this option would allow them to address this challenge – provided the mandate is sufficiently balanced to obtain unanimous support in the European Council, a precondition for the use of article 44.
As an alternative, EU members could contribute to security in the Red Sea through the so-called Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMPs). This relatively new tool, first used in 2021, allows EU members to volunteer to perform additional tasks with their naval and air assets in an area that has been defined as a Maritime Area of Interest (MAI) by the Council of the European Union.
As the north-western Indian Ocean, including the Bab-El Mandeb Strait, is already designated an Maritime Area of Interest, one could imagine for EU member states to envisage cooperation through the CMPs in a similar manner in the Red Sea.
The flexibility of these formats also constitutes a window of opportunity for European cooperation beyond the EU – namely with the UK. One could imagine a ‘plug and play’ logic where the UK joins European states that already coordinate their action through the Coordinated Maritime Presences, or a close coordination between the UK and an intra-EU coalition of the willing. Whatever the approach is, speed and coordination will be key to make it impactful.
By Gesine Weber, PhD candidate, King’s College London.