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EMSS: new and approaching ‘hot-buttons’ for maritime security

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Given the success of EU maritime cooperation combatting piracy in Somalia and the Western Indian Ocean, and with activity in the area gradually subsiding, there’s an inevitable question of “where to next?” for Europe’s maritime security strategy…

(Photo credit: EU Naval Force Media and Public-information Office, Flickr)


EMSS: new and approaching ‘hot-buttons’ for maritime security

Given the success of EU maritime cooperation combatting piracy in Somalia and the Western Indian Ocean, and with activity in the area gradually subsiding, there’s an inevitable question of “where to next?” for Europe’s maritime security strategy. Indeed, as successful as Operation Atalanta has been, there are other pressing if more complex projects where the EU can and should exercise its young maritime security framework and action plan. As is often the case, proactivity will improve coordination and deter stagnation, especially in as fickle a sphere as EU maritime security.

Putting aside the goliath in the room, the Mediterranean, the other obvious choice for a redirection of naval resources is the Gulf of Guinea, a criminal hotspot on the West African coast. Not only does it fit perfectly the traditional ‘crisis management’ model for EU maritime security, the Gulf of Guinea can also benefit from many of the measures already put in place around the Horn of Africa. While intervention will not be as direct as on the East African coast,—where individual states were less equipped economically and politically to provide their own security—ideas developed in Somalia regarding pirate transfer agreements to prosecute criminals, coastguard-naval cooperation, flexible mandates, best management practices guidelines (BMPs), information sharing between states, and local capacity building all transfer well to the Gulf of Guinea. Some projects along these lines are already under way in the Gulf, including CRIMGO, an anti-piracy training initiative for West African military and police. The Gulf also provides a great opportunity for the EU to finally hone and refine its maritime surveillance activity, currently in the arduous process of being consolidated under the security strategy’s CISE framework. Implementation of a CISE network has been bogged down in underfunding and legal disputes over data sharing and privacy between civilian and military interests, even though the maritime arena, consisting of many hundreds of public, data-collecting actors, now faces information gaps on relevant issues of 40% to 90%. Still, successful cases of civilian-military information exchange, like operation Atalanta’s real time ship-to-ship chat service Mercury, provide role models for how naval forces can offer a “military layer” to the CISE project and close knowledge gaps. Implementing such an exchange in West Africa will of course require cooperation with NATO, and solidifying many of the agreements and arrangements that came out of the operations in Somalia. Doing so will bring Europe one step closer to the goal of a “network of networks” for maritime surveillance, headed hopefully by the highly capable European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

In the Council’s 2014 press release on ‘EU Strategy on the Gulf of Guinea’, illegal and unregulated fishing was listed as the primary threat, before even human trafficking and drug smuggling. West African coastal states can lose up to $1.5 billion annually due to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUU), hurting both local standards of living and the largest importer of fish, the EU. Curbing IUU requires a greater policing presence to aid strained local navies, as well as surveillance information sharing between civilian and government boats—the keystone to realizing the vision of Maritime CISE.

As mentioned above, intervention in the Gulf of Guinea is a clear case of EU crisis management. But in today’s world of myriad and subtle maritime tensions and zone discrepancies, there’s also something to be said for moving beyond the crisis management paradigm and into the projection of sea power in key regions. These are regions without tangible crises, but replete with mounting tensions that threaten European trade interests and almost ensure future conflict. One of these is the Arctic and Baltic Sea area, where fishing, mineral, and energy resources, along with the opening of the Northern Sea Route is garnering substantial interest from Russia and China. Russian concern is quite visible in the form of Northern Fleet military drills and the rebuilding of permanent installations on the New Siberian Islands. A law signed by Putin in 2014 even allows corporations involved in the Arctic to protect their infrastructure with private security forces. China is quieter about its Arctic involvement, enticing small northern countries like Iceland and Denmark with aid packages, funding substantial research in the region, and signing cooperative deals with Russia to snap up gas exploration projects in South Tambey and the Kara Sea. These are projects abandoned by Western companies, forced to pull out of the Arctic as part of sanctions over Ukraine. In case sanctions persist, China is in talks with Russia to sail rigs from the South China Sea to the Arctic to replace the removed Western ones. They have gained permanent observer status in the Arctic Council—the EU still hasn’t—and are building a second Arctic-capable icebreaker to rival the size of the U.S.’s Arctic fleet.

When discussing the importance of the Arctic, there are the often quoted statistics: 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of its undiscovered natural gas, and 20% of its undiscovered natural gas liquids. Less often quoted are the EU-centric statistics: the EU makes up 24% of demand for Arctic oil and gas, 39% of demand for Arctic fish, and provides 27% of Arctic tourists. While it’s no doubt within no country’s interest to militarize the Arctic region, Arctic maritime security still has a role to play in EU strategy, in the form of rescue operations—in desperate need of development—IUU fishing surveillance, and protection of assets. This means increasing the EU’s number of ice-capable ships, increasing research involvement, and cooperating with northern EU members in discussing Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) borders, within which a coastal country has rights to deep sea minerals. Not to mention, both the Baltic and the North Sea are excellent, focused places to work on further pooling of resources, such as the common purchase of patrolling marine surveillance aircraft for military and civilian actors. The Council has asked the Commission to develop proposals for a comprehensive EU Arctic policy by the end of this year. France has called for Arctic issues to be put on the agenda for the Paris climate talks. Even though discussion in these spaces should focus on sustainable development, maritime security must have its place as the EU seeks to establish an authoritative presence in the region.

The other region that deserves tangible attention from EU maritime security strategy is Southeast Asia. For the EU, the obvious concern is conflict in the South China Sea, which threatens the stability of trade routes Europe relies on for the majority of imports. But of course this is not a place where EU maritime forces can realistically play a stabilizing role. Still, there are other less controversial security concerns where EU naval expertise can aid ASEAN partners without aggravating Beijing. Immigration from Bangladesh and Myanmar to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia is a pressing topic; here EU can share lessons learned from their own migration problem, as well as provide surveillance assistance and training. After Malaysian patrol ships turned away two boats earlier this summer, forcing 600 weak refugees back out to sea, migration in Southeast Asia has clearly become a humanitarian challenge. A “crisis management” scenario deserving of EU attention.

In 2014, Southeast Asia also saw a spike in piracy. Incidents shifted from the Malacca Strait, where joint efforts by European and Asian signatories to ReCAAP—a collaborative organization for information sharing and capacity building—are active in counter-piracy, to the less-monitored Singapore Strait and parts of the South China Sea. This increase comes after several years of subsiding piracy rates, and is at least partly due to the increased lucrativeness of siphoning fuel and oil from tankers. Here is an opportunity for the EU to expand its involvement in ReCAPP, not only in surveillance capabilities but also in the exercise of joint counter-piracy drills, capacity building programs, or participation in and training of counter-piracy patrols. Strengthening ASEAN’s maritime capabilities in these respects—experiences from EUCAP Nestor, the capacity-building project in Somalia can help here—will in the process aid indirectly ASEAN balancing in the South China Sea. The EU should also look to participate in broader surveillance and cooperative organizations, like the Singapore-led Information Future Center. Such expansion is an act of maritime confidence building for coastal nations whose smaller navies currently lack the expertise and clout to contribute meaningfully to stabilization.

EUMSS explicitly calls for the EU’s enhanced role as both a security provider and global actor. This means especially extending influence in the Neighborhood and adjacent territory, including the Indian Ocean and West African coast, where many states struggle to enforce EEZ borders and protect against the destabilizing forces of illegal fishing, illegal dumping, trafficking, and piracy. In these areas the EU can offer its services in developing maritime situational awareness, in training coast guards and police forces, and in general capacity building. This is not a vague mandate. Specific expertise was cultivated in Somalia, which is now ready to be redeployed and improved upon. In the Arctic, policy waters are murkier, and the EU still has no surefire sense of its role. But even so there are things to be done by way of capacity-building—building new icebreakers, developing search-and-rescue capabilities—and surveillance to ensure the EU is part of the conversation as the region becomes more important.


Short Bio: Andre Gray is a student of Economics/Mathematics and Philosophy at the University of Southern California, with a focus in Political Economy. His academic interests include Arctic and European geopolitics, natural resource economics, and marine/coastal management and security. He aspires to an advanced degree in Political Economy, pursuing research in one or several of these themes. Andre is the Associate Editor of the undergraduate scholarly journal Glimpse From the Globe, and a former intern of Egmont.


Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE): A project seeking to enhance information sharing between all authorities related to European maritime surveillance by building on existing information sharing systems and platforms.

Mercury: A web-based network that provides shipping with the ability to report real-time details of piracy attacks or suspected piracy events over great distances between participants in any of the counter-piracy missions to share threat notifications and declare intentions.

IUU: The all-encompassing name given to any manner of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): The borders that define under the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) the portion of ocean a coastal country has exclusive rights to explore for resources.

ReCAAP: An agreement between countries in Southeast Asia that facilitates capacity building and cooperation in counter-piracy operations in the region, supported by an information sharing network housed in Singapore.