New defense minister Lorenzo Guerini after the swearing-in ceremony in Rome on September 5, 2019 | Photo: ANSA/Fabio Frustaci
New defense minister Lorenzo Guerini after the swearing-in ceremony in Rome on September 5, 2019 | Photo: ANSA/Fabio Frustaci

Dealing with issues concerning migration, especially relations with Libya and the renewal of an EU anti-smuggling operation in the Mediterranean: Those are some of the difficult tasks Italy's new Minister of Defense Lorenzo Guerini is facing.

Unusually perhaps, for the portfolio of a defense minister, migration will pose some of the key challenges ahead for Italy's new minister Lorenzo Guerini. That's because high up his list of priorities will be dealing with issues like relations with Libya; the possible announcement of a second edition of the EU Operation Sophia, designed to combat migrant smuggling in the Mediterranean, as well as tackling some of the root causes of migration to Europe.

In addition, Guerini will be expected to look at new strategies for EU-NATO relations as well as the state of Italy's defense industry itself.

One of the most controversial issues facing Guerini is relations with Libya and the management of migration flows from the country to Europe. Italy has an army contingent of about 300 soldiers stationed in Misrata, a coastal city some 190 kilometers east of the capital Tripoli. They are there as part of a mission to run and provide surveillance for a military hospital in the city.

Reassessment of Operation Sophia

The EU's anti-trafficking Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean was halted in March after it was rejected by former interior minister Matteo Salvini. The operation's main priority, according to its website, is to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enable assets used, or suspected of being used, by migrant smugglers or traffickers, in order to contribute to wider EU efforts to disrupt the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks in the Southern Central Mediterranean and prevent the further loss of life at sea.”

A new Operation Sophia, which would work against human trafficking along the central Mediterranean route from the Libyan coast to Europe, may now get support from several European countries including - first and foremost - Germany.

European operation Sophia has been rescuing fewer migrants  Credit Picture-alliancedpaGLamiOperation Sophia, officially the European Union Naval Force - Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED) mission, focuses on combating smuggling gangs off Libya. It has been credited with saving more than 45,000 people's lives at sea since it began in 2015.

Starting this April, however, naval ships were no longer part of it due to member states disagreeing over how to divide the rescued among themselves. The operation is now being run solely from the air as well as training Libya’s coast guard. This means the operation can no longer save migrants in distress at sea.

Extension of Operation Sophia likely

Meanwhile, it is likely that another extension will be granted to Operation Sophia, according to sources in Brussels.

A preliminary discussion was held on September 5 at a meeting of the European Council's Political and Security Committee (PSC) on the issue. The mission will expire on September 30.

The European Commission (EC) has said member states will make a decision about dividing up migrants rescued at sea amongst themselves before the end of September.

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