Image from the archives of EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia. (ANSA/Press Office)
Image from the archives of EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia. (ANSA/Press Office)

The Italian government has decided to extend Operation Sophia, the European mission to fight illegal immigration in the Mediterranean, for three months.

Operation Sophia, the European mission led by Italy to fight illegal immigration, will be extended for three months in order to allow for continued negotiations with other European countries. The extension will also enable Italy to follow up on the changes it requested: rotating ports of disembarkation, with the division of rescued migrants to other EU member states. 

The Italian government decided to extend the mission after a meeting convened by Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte with Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta, Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Enzo Vecciarelli, Mission Commander Adm. Enrico Credentino, and Foreign Ministry Secretary General Elisabetta Belloni. 

Government mediation 

The mission's mandate expires on December 31, and last week Salvini was clear in his intentions. "We firmly maintain our unwillingness towards disembarkation procedures that provide for docking only in Italian ports (...) Without consensus on our positions, we do not feel it is appropriate to continue the mission." Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta, however, wished to avoid a brusque closure of the mission. To this end, Conte convened the meeting at Chigi Palace with the relevant ministers in order to mediate an agreement. Trenta presented a cost-benefit analysis that showed Italy would have to shoulder an additional 130-140 million euros annually to carry out tasks it currently handles as the head of the EU mission. 

The point was also raised that Salvini's concern over docking at only Italian ports has by now taken on a nearly insignificant dimension. In addition, the possible year-end closure of Operation Sophia could facilitate another country, such as France, making a proposal for a new mission that would not be led by Italy. The end of the mission could also have repercussions on the cooperation strategy with Libya, a key partner for Italian national interests. The arguments in favor of the mission persuaded Salvini and led Conte to propose a three-month extension for negotiations aimed at achieving Italy's proposed conditions.

Stall in Brussels 

Meanwhile, in Brussels, negotiations surrounding the renewal of the mission's mandate are stalled in the EU Political and Security Committee (PSC). A new meeting is scheduled prior to the EU Council on Thursday and Friday. On the table is a possible six-month extension tied to the effort to find a medium-term solution on the issue of ports of disembarkation. Eventual changes in the rules can only pass with a unanimous vote by all 28 member states, which explains the inherent difficulty of the negotiations.

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