With Libya Still at War, E.U. Agrees to Try Blocking Weapons Flow

BRUSSELS — The European Union agreed on Monday to launch a new naval and air mission to stop more arms reaching the warring factions in Libya, overcoming initial objections from Austria and Hungary, which feared the ships might attract migrants and enable more of them to reach Europe.

The decision by foreign ministers was a victory for the new European foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, who has criticized the need for unanimity among all member states to make decisions on foreign and security policy.

The new mission will be limited to the eastern Mediterranean, where most arms smuggling to Libya takes place, away from the routes most migrants take to try to reach Europe from chaotic Libya. The agreement satisfies the objections of fiercely anti-immigrant nations like Austria and Hungary, which have moved sharply to the right in recent years.

Mr. Borrell had warned that the European Union could not stand idly by while nearby Libya was embroiled in civil war aided most recently by Russia and Turkey, which support opposite sides.

At a Berlin summit meeting last month, world leaders agreed to encourage a cease-fire and stop the flow of weapons into Libya, but little has changed on the ground and fighting continues.

The Tripoli government of Fayez al-Sarraj, backed by the United Nations, is under attack from forces led by Khalifa Hifter, who controls much of the south and east of the country. He is supported by states including Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, while Mr. Sarraj is supported by Turkey and Qatar.

The E.U.’s new arms blockade replaces another E.U. mission which had gone defunct — Operation Sophia — which had been rescuing migrants off the Libyan coast and ferrying them to Europe. Italy, Austria and Hungary objected, fearing an influx of migrants. Operation Sophia had been inactive since last March, but was never officially ended.

Mr. Borrell had hoped to revive Operation Sophia., and criticized Austria on Sunday for blocking its revival, saying that it was absurd for a landlocked country without a navy to exercise such a veto.

Austria has taken a tough anti-migrant stance under its current chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and its position was supported by another landlocked country, Hungary, whose right-wing populist government has also drawn a hard line against migration.

“We all agree to create a mission that blocks the flow of arms into Libya,” Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio of Italy told reporters, referring to a U.N. arms embargo first imposed in 2011 but widely violated. Re-establishing the embargo is seen as vital to stabilizing the Libyan conflict. Recent efforts to restore a cease-fire there have collapsed.

But Mr. di Maio also said that if the mission “creates a ‘pull factor,’ that is to say the ships attract migrants, the mission will be stopped.’’

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said similarly that Vienna would be vigilant for any signs that the mission, which will take several weeks to set up, was attracting migrants into Europe.

“There is a basic consensus that we now want a military operation and not a humanitarian mission,’’ he said.

Mr. Borrell said that he hoped the operation could be patrolling by the end of March and would operate in international, not Libyan, waters.


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