France’s Orphaned Mistrals Can Solve a Sea of Troubles

French Mistral warship, Nov. 25, 2006As the European Union struggles to remain a unified and influential force for the 21st century, geopolitical developments have only made this goal more elusive. While Europe argues over how to deal with a resurgent Russia, there is also a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, resulting from regional crises and exacerbated by incoherent EU immigration policies. Hundreds of refugees from Africa and the Middle East are fleeing their home countries every day, trying find a better life in Europe. Their means of escape are often overcrowded and structurally unsound ships. This danger was brought to light when over 800 refugees drowned after their boat capsized this month. More than 1700 have died at sea this year trying to reach the EU. Mitigating these tragedies requires a proactive approach of intercepting crafts bound for Europe and rescuing the migrants on board.

In light of the conflict in Ukraine, France recently canceled a deal to sell two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, and this presents an opportunity for Europe. The EU should build a Crisis Taskforce around France’s orphaned Mistrals that would address Europe’s migration crisis to its south, enhance EU political unity, and strengthen burden-sharing.

The creation of a new EU border security framework, built around EU funding and acquisition is crucial for producing effective and consistent border security policy, as demonstrated by the current framework’s failures. In the past, the states in southern Europe have individually taken near complete responsibility for mitigating this humanitarian crisis: The Italian-led Mare Nostrum cost its government 114 million Euros from October 2013 to October 2014, while the EU External Borders Fund contributed only 1.8 million Euros. Even with other sources of external aid, including missions by Europe’s present border security framework Frontex, Italy still bore much of the burden, the result being political failure from Mare Nostrum’s humanitarian success. The mission’s replacement by Operation Triton, led by Frontex, had a monthly budget of only 2.9 million Euros, representing a two-thirds cut in border security operations, and paid for only by participating EU member states. The cut and the correspondingly limited role of Triton has been the leading explanation for the recent tragedy in the Mediterranean.

The new framework should be flexible enough to allow Europe to respond and adapt to evolving conflicts and catastrophes which might afflict the EU’s southern border. While the framework will represent a permanent capacity for Frontex to address border security, it must also be available to assist the broader European security apparatus in supporting potential humanitarian and security missions in the Middle East and North Africa, led by international coalitions, to address the root causes for mass migration.

If the Mistral ships became the backbone of a new EU crisis taskforce, they could provide a superb platform for addressing migration issues and providing humanitarian aid. In the same way that Italy used its San Gusto amphibious assault vessel in Mare Nostrum, the EU could use the Mistrals as staging ships for rescue operations in the Mediterranean. This would include utilizing helicopters for search and rescue and large personnel capacities to hold and transport migrants from intercepted boats.

The first step toward forming this taskforce is its financing. The funding of the ships and the taskforce is both an end and a means. Not only does it provide for acquisition necessary to ensuring the sanctity of a common border, but it also alleviates considerable financial burden France will bear for withholding the Mistals from Russia. By cancelling their delivery to Moscow, France’s economy will take a significant blow, at a time when sanctions have already struck its exports industry hard. As France’s policies fall in line with EU sanctions, other members should help to alleviate its financial burden, particularly those members which are outspoken advocates of sanctions and those which will benefit most from a new crisis taskforce.

The political obstacles to EU acquisition of the Mistral ships will present the greatest challenge to the development of the crisis taskforce. Even as the EU employs multiple cooperative security structures to assist with collective security, such large-scale procurement of military equipment by and for the EU is unprecedented. While in the past there have been some initiatives to create an “EU army,” partially due to the failure of the European Defense Community in the 1950s, the EU’s current political and security situation have made increased security integration a greater possibility. Deficiencies in current European security were made apparent after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading some to conclude that increased security integration will reduce inefficiency in Europe’s current security structure. In March, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen stated her support for an EU army: “I am convinced that a European army or a European defense union can be created as a logical consequence of European integration.” This came days after a similar statement on EU security integration was made by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. These announcements indicate recent changes in attitude toward security integration within the EU, and how the Mistral ships could be used to help unify the bloc.

Purchasing the Mistrals through a new EU security framework would help test the EU’s ability to budget and manage integrated European security operations. With the necessity of a crisis taskforce clear and its objectives limited, the proposed taskforce is ideal as a proving ground for integrated European security. The development of the taskforce and its subsequent mission deployment will provide immediate and tangible measurements of success or failure. These metrics will determine the EU’s readiness to adopt broadened responsibilities and ability to negotiate and establish collective ownership of hardware through the Union. Whether or not it is successful, either in the taskforce’s mission or in the bureaucratic process itself, the results will set a benchmark for the EU’s current progress toward fulfilling its broader responsibilities implied by its foundational policies.

Confronting the challenges of today, the EU is increasingly finding that coordination and unity is pivotal in standing its own against external crises and security threats and internal economic difficulty. The collapsed Mistral deal presents a prime opportunity to exhibit EU solidarity, to test the potential for expanding the EU’s role in security and most importantly, to save lives and help mitigate a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis.

Blake Franko is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Nicholas Varangis is an intern with the Transatlantic Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Image: French Mistral warship, Nov. 25, 2006 (photo: F. Dubey)