COLOGNE, Germany — European defense ministers have thrown their support behind a concept for deploying European Union member nations’ naval forces to protect key shipping lanes, though the idea is not meant to secure traffic in the Strait of Hormuz.
The plan for a “coordinated maritime presence,” as officials call it, is based on voluntary force contributions from EU states, with assets remaining under national control at all times. Details will be ironed out over the next few months, with a test deployment eyed in the Gulf of Guinea off the western coast of Africa at some point, according to Federica Mogherini, the bloc’s chief diplomat.
“We see a growing demand for an EU role as a maritime security provider, not only in our region but also farther away,” she told reporters Thursday during a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, where EU defense ministers met for informal talks. The Asia-Pacific area could be such a region, she added.
The move comes as the United States, together with the United Kingdom, Australia and Bahrain, begin Operation Sentinel, in which warships from coalition members escort cargo vessels in the Hormuz Strait to keep Iran from seizing them.
Officials in Washington had wanted European countries to participate, but they found no takers other than the United Kingdom. Leaders in Berlin declined the request, arguing that German forces could be drawn into a war if bullets started flying between U.S. and Iranian vessels in the course of the protection mission.
The problem of Iranian forces threatening tankers in international waters makes for a complicated diplomatic dance by the EU and member Germany. On the one hand, officials say the detention of cargo ships cannot be tolerated. On the other hand, they fear heavy-handed retribution could endanger whatever chances are left to preserve key tenets of the international Iran nuclear deal, meant to prevent Tehran from building atomic weapons.
The U.S left the agreement following the election of President Donald Trump.
In describing the EU’s maritime security plan, Mogherini managed to avoid mentioning the Hormuz flashpoint until asked by a reporter what the concept had to do with the ongoing crisis. For now, she said, the concept was “not linked to any specific tension,” though the region could see a deployment “in the future.”
The topic of securing the vital shipping lane is expected to come up again as EU foreign ministers gather in Helsinki on Friday, according to Mogherini. That diplomatic-political forum would be better suited to address the crisis rather than the defense chiefs, she said.
Much remains to be sorted out about the envisioned naval deployments, including the combat capability of participating units. For now, there is talk only of sharing “information, awareness and analysis” while at sea, the EU chief diplomat said.
“It is hard to evaluate the concept’s practical value without knowing what assets it has at its disposal to fulfill its aims,” Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Defense News. “Exchanging information and analysis would be on a voluntary basis, and experience has taught us that if anything, it is limited.”
One of the requirements for the force to come together is that all nearby coastal countries must agree on its presence, Mogherini said. That may mean there is little consideration by EU planners to deploy into truly dicey situations.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.