Italy wants fast decision on EU Maritime Red Sea force

Following the agreement of EU states on Tuesday January 16th to back a mission to protect ships from attacks by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi militia in the Red Sea, but with what had been criticized by some diplomats as too relaxed a timetable, Italy has said that it would like a political decision made by next week, so that it can become operational as soon as possible.

Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on Wednesday that “the idea is to have a European mission that can be operational as soon as possible”, Tajani said. “Then, certainly, decisions will be made, but the political decision for us must be taken by next Monday.”

The objective of EU states as recorded on Tuesday was to establish their mission “by February 19th at the latest” and make it operational at a later date described only as “soon afterwards”.

Given the EU’s record for missing even relaxed deadlines, and for malleable terms such as “soon” often being subject to distortion beyond normal interpretation, several diplomats said they hoped the process could be fast-tracked given the tensions in the region.

The matter will be discussed by foreign ministers on Monday January 22nd.

Diplomats said there was still a need to define exactly the rules of engagement beyond patrolling. The EU also already has missions in the region, Atalanta off the coast of Somalia and Agenor in the Strait of Hormuz.

Tajani said the easiest solution would be to expand into the Red Sea the Agenor mission currently operating in the Strait of Hormuz. Referring to the EU’s diplomatic arm, he said that “I believe that even the European Union’s External Action Service is quite favourable to this hypothesis”. France is currently in command of the Agenor mission.

Two diplomats said that France and Italy, which already have warships in the region, along with Germany, which plans to send the Hesse frigate, would contribute first to the EU mission.

Last week Italy, Spain and France declined to take part in the US and UK strikes against the Houthis in Yemen. Neither did any of them sign a statement put out by 10 countries supporting the reasoning behind the attacks. The countries are seen as not wanting to be identified too closely with the US line in the Israel-Hamas conflict, despite the US and UK being keen to claim that the conflict in the Red Sea is separate from the Israel/Hamas conflict in Gaza.

The new EU mission would coordinate patrols with the US-led operation.