The path the British warship HMS Bulwark is taking around the Mediterranean charts a map of European indecision when it comes to dealing with its migration crisis.
The Bulwark is 19,560 tonnes of sheer hell, or sheer help, depending on who you are. She boasts a flight deck large enough for two to three helicopters, a dock for four landing craft, each capable of carrying two tanks, and another four smaller craft over the side. The Bulwark can accommodate 400 passengers comfortably, or up to 700 for short voyages. The cargo hold has room for 70 vehicles with roll-on/roll-off access. It was designed to provide hospital facilities and act as flagship for a joint task force.
All this is ideal if you have an invasion in mind. But it serves equally well for an evacuation, like when she evacuated British nationals from Lebanon in 2006. RFA Lyme Bay, a similar British ship, sailed for Haiti just after the earthquake in 2010, with supplies for rebuilding aboard including all the corrugated iron in Britain.
Something in between war and peace is also an option for ships like the Bulwark. There is plenty of room in the dock for the special forces’ special boats. Even the big landing craft can operate up to 200 miles away independently. Bulwark herself carried out a mission like that, chasing pirates off Somalia in 2006, while the US Navy converted the Ponce, a similar ship, into a permanent base for the Navy SEALs in 2012.
Today’s navies cherish the flexibility these ships provide. They can be asked to tackle terrorists, pirates, noncombatant evacuations, natural disasters, or pro-Russian coups at any moment, so it makes a lot of sense to sail multi-purpose ships. The European Union possesses 14 such ships, the second-largest fleet in the world. But when thousands of migrants were shipwrecked in the Mediterranean in mid-April, the Bulwark was far afield, anchored off the coast of Gallipoli for the 100th anniversary commemoration of the World War I battle. She had sailed for the Mediterranean on April 9.
To begin with, the British government stood pat, despite pressure from allies and the media to help with rescue efforts. Then, with days to go before the election, the prime minister offered the crew up for a European operation in the Narrows. The Bulwark wasn’t in any hurry to get there, though — she was still off the Turkish coast two days later, and didn’t arrive on the scene of the rescue mission until May 5.
At this point, the Italian navy’s Operation Mare Nostrum operation had been shut down for some months and the EU’s efforts in the area consisted of two small coastguard cutters funded by the Frontex program, operating close to the Italian shore. It’s no wonder Bulwark took her time arriving, given how confused the EU’s approach to the crisis has been. On April 20, news leaked that the EU was considering a military operation against the shipwrecked. Shortly afterwards, on May 25, Wikileaks committed a public service by publishing documents from the EU Military Committee. The aim of the proposed operation was to “disrupt the traffickers’ business model” by destroying boats, “loading facilities,” or “fuel,” perhaps on shore.
In effect, the proposed EU operation meant that any boat on the southern seaboard of the Mediterranean could be a target. That’s a lot of boats. The above map shows how many ships there are right now in the Mediterranean Narrows, though it only shows the ones well-organized and well-intentioned enough to use radio beacons. The map does not show many vessels off Libya, but that’s because there isn’t an online receiver in range.
The EU Military Committee, however, was not willing to outdo Heinrich Zimmermann, the German submarine commander who ruthlessly sank my grandfather’s ship near Iceland in February, 1942. After all, Zimmermann didn’t turn his guns on the survivors struggling into lifeboats.
The EU accepted that the Saving of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea require them to save anyone who ends up in the water. But the committee also thought it wise to publicly deny that, evidently for fear that potential migrants might be encouraged, as this excerpt from the leaked Military Committee policy paper shows:
“12. The EUMC emphasizes that preservation of human life at sea is a legal obligation in accordance with Saving of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In addition, EUMC highlights that, when assisting search and rescue operations, assets will act coordinated by the competent Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) within its SAR region. Furthermore, for intervention under the SOLAS obligations, coordination agreements with FRONTEX and other relevant authorities, for the transfer of rescued people, both migrants and smugglers, should be established. Rescue operations led during this operation should not be publicised in order to avoid providing an incentive to migrants.”
This document is of a remarkable moral character, but that’s not its most striking feature. People who were willing to risk the Mediterranean crossing, having already crossed the Sahara, were meant to be scared by press releases, even after the first rescue had taken place. Destroying smugglers’ ancient dinghies, which are usually lost in the crossing anyway, was meant to stop trafficking.
Meanwhile, the idea of operations on land against “loading facilities” — in other words, an invasion of Libya – was included as if it were utterly trivial. By May 5, Bulwark was at last on station in the Mediterranean Narrows. But did she come in peace, or in war? Three days later, the British Ministry of Defence proudly announced she had rescued some 100 people from the sea that day alone.
She hasn’t stopped since. On June 8, she rescued 700 people and Michael Fallon, the U.K.’s defense minister, flew aboard by helicopter to congratulate the crew. Even the ferocious Daily Mail, whose correspondent accompanied Fallon, was sympathetic.
Bulwark is operating in a taskforce with Italian, German, Spanish and Swedish ships and aircraft. It looks almost as if Operation Mare Nostrum has been internationalised, spreading the load in a very European manner. The April summit suggested that the EU might find more money, perhaps €120 million, but then they also wanted to invade Libya.
The Commission’s proposal that EU nations ought to share the burden of receiving refugees, rather than handling them strictly in the first country they land in, is making progress — at least it hasn’t been thrown out entirely, as seemed likely. After all, that approach is precisely what would be needed if the Ukrainian crisis turned really ugly, something Polish diplomats made clear at the time. They, more than anyone else, would have to deal with refugee flows out of Ukraine and they didn’t want to take on more refugees before that was settled.
Perhaps the EU Military Committee’s draconian counsels from April were nothing but a subtle way of drawing European navies down to the Narrows, where they would invariably be involved in saving lives at sea. We are seeing nothing of those plans now, and although Bulwark is due off station in two weeks’ time, the UK government seems to have offered to relieve her, albeit with the much smaller ship Enterprise. Perhaps. Machiavelli was, after all, Italian and the first rule of EU politics is “don’t bet against the Commission.” But that would be a hellishly dishonest way to make such a decision.
Prediction: In the end, we’ll need to regulate migration going north. In the short term, the proposal to spread refugees among the member states is going to happen.
Observation: Michael Fallon, aboard Bulwark, said the EU should do more to cope with the problem. The UK government is increasingly the main spokesman for the EU in Britain, whether it likes it or not.
Alex Harrowell blogs at The Yorkshire Ranter and Fistful of Euros.
Click Here: Germany Football Shop