international analysis and commentary

The Red Sea as a core business for the EU

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The EU is preparing to launch a maritime operation to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea from attacks by the Houthis from Yemen. A welcome and necessary decision; and none too late, two months after the attacks started. What once was true for the British Empire, now is true for the EU: the dependence on the sea lane of communication through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea (30% of global container traffic, 12% of global trade) is a core feature of its geopolitical position. In Brussels, geopolitics is the talk of the town these days. But do European leaders have their geopolitical priorities, right?

A British Empire map (1922) of the Red Sea and the Arabic Sea

 

Sudan lies on the Red Sea too

Maritime security in the Red Sea ought to have been given priority a long time ago. Since 2021, Russia has been eying an agreement with Sudan’s military ruler, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to build a navy base in Port Sudan. After civil war broke out in April 2023, however, Wagner was alleged of supporting his rival, Hemedti, whose so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are fighting Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). The geopolitical risk is obvious: a Russian navy base on the Red Sea would distinctly not be in the EU interest. On 5 May 2023, the Spanish frigate Reina Sofia, which was serving on EU Operation Atalanta, entered Port Sudan, and evacuated 162 civilians from the city. More importantly, this demonstrated a real European presence, which could be read as a message of deterrence: Europe stands ready to defend its interests.

But was that really the case? By chance, the area of operations of Operation Atalanta had been extended from the North Western Indian Ocean to include the Red Sea. But the frigate was not sent because of the geopolitical awareness of the EU’s political leadership; rather it was the fortuitous product of proactive officers in the EU Military Staff and the Spanish Operational Command of Atalanta. The political leadership saw it as an evacuation operation and nothing more. The EU did the right thing, but by coincidence – and hence did not follow-up. In spite of the extension of the area of operations, Member States did not reinforce Atalanta: as of today, it still counts but a single Spanish frigate.

 

From Gaza to Yemen

Now, the ongoing war in Gaza has produced the consequences that the Sudan war, fortunately, did not. Since 7 October 2023, when Hamas committed an atrocious terrorist attack in Israel, for which Israel retaliated with a massive war in Gaza, Iran-backed militias have undertaken over a hundred attacks on US military bases in Syria and Iraq. In retaliation, the US has launched air strikes. Hezbollah has also fired rockets against Israel from Lebanon. By acting through its clients, Iran, without getting directly involved, presumably seeks to put pressure on the US, so that Washington would put pressure on Israel to end operations in Gaza.

 

Read also: The Gaza war: a new cleavage for Europe

 

Even more worryingly, another Iran-backed group, the Houthi faction that controls much of Yemen, from 19 November started to attack commercial shipping in the Red Sea, proclaiming to act in support of the Palestinians. The economic impact has been immediate, as shipping companies diverted their vessels to the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope.

Keeping open this sea lane of communication is a vital interest of the EU. Yet its reaction was sluggish at best. The US acted first, in fact, launching Operation Prosperity Guardian in December 2023: a coalition of the willing counting some twenty countries, including EU Member States Denmark, Greece, and the Netherlands. The EU then finally started to explore its own options and agreed to have Atalanta cooperate with Prosperity Guardian, only for Spain to block the consensus. And all the while, of course, as stated above, Atalanta in any case still had but a single ship. The debate then shifted, in January 2024, to creating a new operation with at least three ships, to be deployed in February, fully three months after the attacks on this vital economic artery started. Even before the EU decided on the mandate for the new operation, on 12 January 2024 the US and the UK went a step further and took the lead in attacking Houthi bases in Yemen.

It appears that many EU governments feared that any military action in the Red Sea would contribute to an escalatory spiral, especially if undertaken under US command, because that would somehow be construed as support for Israel. A rather far-fetched notion in the light of the opportunistic attacks by the Houthis, behind a facade of support for Palestine, against civilian ships. The EU ought to have acted first, and in force, at least to protect commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. Deciding not to retaliate against Houthi bases is a legitimate choice, though in doing so the US and the UK send a strong and necessary signal. Of course, their air strikes will not end the Houthi attacks, let alone the civil war in Yemen. Above anything else, Israel must halt its military operations in Gaza, immediately, if regional stability has to be restored. But meanwhile, the freedom of the seas is a global public good that no one should be allowed to attack with impunity.

All of this rather puts to shame the EU’s claim to be a geopolitical actor and (in its 2016 Global Strategy) a global maritime security provider. And the irony is that on 24 October 2023 the EU had just adopted a Revised Maritime Security Strategy.

 

Forget Indo-Pac

Does EU strategy have the right geopolitical focus, in fact, especially in the maritime domain? In 2021, the EU adopted a strategy for the Indo-Pacific, following in the footsteps of the US, Australia, and Japan (and EU Member States France and Germany). That label covers a vast expanse, from Madagascar to Alaska. So vast, indeed, that security dynamics on one end bear little relation to those on the other. While talking about the Indo-Pacific is fashionable, does it make geopolitical sense? It certainly does for Australia, which is poised in between the two oceans. For the US and Japan, both Pacific powers worried about the balance of power with China, the “Indo-Pac” framing serves to rally allies and partners around a geopolitical project that excludes China.

This framing, however, does not relate directly to the core interests of the EU, which as such is not a Pacific power (even though France has territories there). What matters to the EU is connectivity: the sea lane of communication from the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, both to the Gulf and across the Indian Ocean to East Asia. With the exception of Operation Atalanta, and the maritime awareness Operation Emasoh in the Strait of Hormuz, the EU has not focussed on that key region for a long time.

 

Read also: Europa 2024

 

In between the focus on the Sahel and on Ukraine, both fully justified, of course, the closely interrelated regions of the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Gulf have instead been a void in European geopolitical thinking. From now on, they too should be at the centre of EU strategy. Beyond that, the EU does not really need an Indo-Pacific Strategy, but an Asia and a China strategy.

 

 


A version of this article was originally published by Egmont, the Royal Institute for International Relations.