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Why the EU is dithering on Red Sea airstrikes

Houthi rebels in Yemen this week, protesting the US-led airstrikes. Credit: Getty

January 23, 2024 - 1:00pm

On Monday, the US and UK once again used airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, citing the “intolerable” attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The strikes were supported by Bahrain, Australia, Canada and just one European country — the Netherlands.

Achieving consensus among the EU 27 has always been difficult. Complicating factors is the opposition from Turkey, not an EU member but a Nato one, to strikes in the Red Sea, while the swift rejection of a two-state solution by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only adding to the difficulties in trying to form a consensus.  

High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell announced on Monday that EU ministers had agreed “in principle” to establish a maritime security option in the Red Sea. Yet he warned that there was much still to be thrashed out — including the rules of engagement, which country would take operational command, the nature of the operation itself and how the mission would work. European navies have been reluctant to put their ships under US command, and just three countries signed the statement supporting the first round of strikes when they were conducted earlier this month.

On top of this is a fear of escalating the conflict in the region into an all-out war. “The EU is preparing its own military operation to protect ships in the Red Sea,” Nathalie Loiseau, the French Renew MEP and chair of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Defence and Security told UnHerd. “But striking Yemen risks restarting a war in a country which has already suffered, and triggering escalation.”

Professor John O’Brennan from Maynooth University’s Centre for European and Eurasian Studies said there were also fears about how any escalation could affect Ukraine. “Some member states fear that more forceful EU action against the Houthis could increase the chance of a wider regional conflagration,” he claimed. “This, in turn, could further reduce EU engagement with Ukraine.”

And there are toxic politics inside the European Commission, too. President Ursula von der Leyen was strongly criticised by Commission staff, MEPs and figures inside member state Ireland for her strong show of support for Israel in the days after the 7 October attack. 

Borrell, a Spanish socialist, has fluctuated between saying nothing about the Red Sea situation and proposing to solve the Middle East crisis with his own ten-point peace plan. The bizarre decision by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz to present to his EU counterparts a video about building an artificial island for Gaza also didn’t help Netanyahu’s case, but Borrell’s decision to ridicule it publicly was equally unnecessary. “The minister presented us with a couple of videos that had little or nothing to do with the issue we were discussing,” Borrell told reporters afterwards.

Both Borrell and von der Leyen’s jobs are up for grabs in Europe’s election year, heightening tensions in Brussels. “The fact that this is an election year in Europe, with intense jockeying already going on for the big four posts (including that which Borell holds currently) is probably part of the story, as is broader dissatisfaction with his period in office,” O’Brennan said. “To describe it as merely underwhelming would be to give him too much credit”.


Latika M. Bourke is a journalist and author based in London with more than twenty years of experience covering Australian politics, British politics and international affairs. She writes at www.latikambourke.com.

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David Lindsay
David Lindsay
5 months ago

Including in the course of a single sentence, Rishi Sunak could not decide whether it was “Houthi” or “Hootie”. He then moved directly from the ludicrous assertion that the situation was unconnected to that in Gaza, to discussing the situation in Gaza. Do the people of Gaza fail to see the connection? Do they welcome the bombing of Yemen? What are both he and Keir Starmer trying to make us believe to be the cause of the Red Sea blockade? How stupid do they think we are?

Those strikes were so successful last time that we have had to launch them again. The victims of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world until the war in Gaza turn out to be a hardy lot. As was the case the first time, last night’s “military targets” were whatever scraps of dirt had last had a drone launched from them, a drone that had not killed anyone, unlike our bombs. No British vessel has been attacked in any way. No American one, either; only the Israelis would dare do that, and they do not confirm themselves to merchant shipping when they do it.

Yemen is not “a haven” for the Houthis. It is their country, and they will no more leave it than the Taliban left Afghanistan, or the Viet Cong left Vietnam. Nor is Yemen, in part or in whole, “an ungoverned space”, which was also claimed about Afghanistan. It is governed by the Houthis. “The Internationally Recognised Government of Yemen” is like the Jacobite Court in Exile, at least after 1746. Even “the Republic of China” rules somewhere. Even some members of those London-based Eastern European governments in exile in the 1980s ended up running their countries in the 1990s; the last Tsar of Bulgaria was later its Prime Minister. But Rashad al-Alimi, who is no good guy, and his Presidential Leadership Council, which resembles the Provisional Army Council both in its conception of itself and in its methods for giving effect to that, are a bunch of vicious fantasists, yet fantasists all the same. We have no reason to prefer them to the Houthis, any more than vice versa, and whatever it is that the Houthis are doing, not to us, would end when the genocide of Gaza ended.

Thankfully, there has not been a Commons vote, because as Ed Davey, of all people, has just confirmed, there would have been, and there would be, a huge majority for this madness, as there was for Libya, and as there was for Iraq, even though in that case it was provided by the Opposition. There would be no need of that this time, as there was none on Libya. Yet as on Libya, it would still be given gladly. The Commons endorsement of the war in Libya is why David Cameron is still in public life after that absolute folly, while the Commons endorsement of the war in Iraq is why Tony Blair is still at liberty after that absolute falsehood. Both principles would apply here, and this time the SNP is as bad as the Liberal Democrats.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

That’s always been the EU’s problem. Too many interests, too many conflicting states, too much democracy. Much better to do it the American way and give all command to a single individual to meddle in the middle east as they fancy.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Isn’t that what we have at the moment? Not sure I would describe it as working well.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
5 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Too much democracy!? Now I’ve heard it all? In what way is the EU democratic?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

The EU is the ultimate technocratic bureaucratic state.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
5 months ago

Saying “the EU is dithering and is finding it hard to reach consensus” is a bit like saying “seawater is salty”. Totally unremarkable.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

My immediate reaction but you beat me to it. You might as well change the headline to “Why is the EU dithering?”
With big things happening in Poland and Hungary and smaller things in Austria, Italy and The Netherlands, the EU seems to be shaking itself apart. But there is no mechanism to stop it is there?

A D Kent
A D Kent
5 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Describing the EU’s decision not to immediately jump into action at the behest of a country whose actions are being almost entirely dictated by another one as ‘dithering’ is a bit like saying “I’m probably a neoconservative and haven’t learned anything from the last fifty years.”

Avro Lanc
Avro Lanc
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Still salty 8 years after losing a vote though… Now that’s funny lol

Sensible Citizen
Sensible Citizen
5 months ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Do you mean bombing the poor, who live thousands of miles from any of us, is not a winning strategy?

El Uro
El Uro
5 months ago

You don’t cry convincingly enough for the poor hungry cannibals.

Sensible Citizen
Sensible Citizen
5 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

I’m saying the opposite. Make the bones bounce in Yemen. Those people aren’t even civilized enough to tap out insults on their laptops while they’re supposed to be working.

B Stern
B Stern
5 months ago

If you happen to go to the market this week you might notice that those poor Yemenis have raised the prices of your purchases by firing ballistic missiles at the container ships bringing them to your shores.

Sensible Citizen
Sensible Citizen
5 months ago
Reply to  B Stern

The cost of grapes is not a reason to bomb a sorry pre-industrial nation. The US brought war ships to the Red Sea to provoke a response. They got it. And the US is adept at losing in these situations, so don’t bet on this strategy to bear “fruit.”

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
5 months ago

President Ursula von der Leyen was strongly criticised by Commission staff, MEPs and figures inside member state Ireland for her strong show of support for Israel in the days after the 7 October attack.
I’m sorry, what? If people cannot bring themselves to criticize the barbarism of Hamas in its immediate aftermath, then these ministers are essentially useless.
And it is possible to criticize both Hamas and the Israeli govt’s response, but this statement is jaw-dropping.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

You completely miss the point – UvdL was way out of line on two levels:
As head of EU Commission, she has no business involving herself in external relations issues. That is the preserve of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Secondly, any such a policy statement must be aligned with the member nations. That may be a structural flaw of the EU, but that is the way the sovereign nation members of the EU, through their elected national representatives, have chosen to structure the powers of the EU. Again, UvdL has no legal, political, or moral power to arrogate such an action to herself.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
5 months ago

‘But . .. but surely if we’re nice to the Iranians/Houthi/Hamas/CCP/Putin then they’ll be nice to us, won’t they?’

Time the EU changed it’s foreign policy paradigm, I think.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
5 months ago

Thr irony is that EU members are more reliant on shipping from that area than either the US or Britain.

Sensible Citizen
Sensible Citizen
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

True. It might have been better had the US not picked the fight to begin with. Spoiling for another regional conflict is the neocon agenda regardless of motive or how poor their adversaries are. Biden’s White House grounds crew has a larger budget than Yemen’s military — who are firing missiles left behind in the Afghanistan surrender. Brilliant strategists running the West at the moment.

William Brand
William Brand
5 months ago

Yemin’s military has a higher survival rate than ours. A dispersed army of peasants has few targets for bombs. They can easily rebuild the mud hut destroyed by a million-dollar smart weapon. Iran has given them rockets and drones that equal Europe’s. Only mass casualty attacks will work, and then the pitiful results will be played back to our squeamish WOKE public on propaganda media.

Sensible Citizen
Sensible Citizen
5 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

I agree. The US learned nothing from two decades of losing in the Middle East. Asymmetric warfare, by populist factions, is an indicator that large wealthy nations have ZERO role to play.

neil sheppard
neil sheppard
5 months ago

The EU is finished. Even its decline is not being well managed.

Sensible Citizen
Sensible Citizen
5 months ago

Thank God we’re finally bombing poor brown people who live in sand and squalor again. Under Trump, we were foolishly abandoning that strategy, which is why we must all support Biden’s reelection. By all means we must make the bones bounce in the middle east.

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
5 months ago

This is the most utterly bizarre article I have read in a long time.
The EU does not have a military. The EU is not a military treaty, it has no military structures. Granted, “Jungle” Joseph Borrell would love to be a Minister for War and he acts and speaks as such, but that does not give the EU any army or navy.
We used to believe that the first leg of collective security was diplomacy, one of the key civilisation advances confirmed by the Treaties of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna, and with great promise by the OSCE. Now, our “Chief Diplomat” proclaims that the decision will fall on the battlefield.
If the EU is determined to solve the “Houthi Problem” (i.e. Israel’s gen0c1dal attacks on Gaza) on the battlefield of the Bab el Mandeb, without any army or navy, then all I can say is: Good luck.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago
Reply to  Jürg Gassmann

Absolutely right, and Britain should not be involved in a matter which affects none of its vital national interests.
If the USA chooses to do so that is entirely its own concern but it seems to have learned nothing from 9/11 when the main lesson was surely that getting involved in other people’s disputes may have very serious consequences.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
5 months ago

Five hours.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
5 months ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Interestingly your comment which is awaiting approval appeared here for a brief moment and was indeed marked as awaiting approval.
I think the g’ocide word is likely the problem.
And incidentally I agreed with your comments, particularly about Blair and Cameron and their consequences.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
5 months ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly
William Brand
William Brand
5 months ago

European nations better get their act together. The red sea route is Europe’s lifeline not America’s. We can do without Arab oil, you can’t. Asian goods do not go to America by this route. Do not put Biden in charge. He has messed up every foreign policy question for 40 years. He pays tribute and appeases Iran and futilely uses diplomacy without result. The real president Obama may be an Iranian agent. Get with India, Australia and the Philippines to rebuild the British empire with India as paymaster in the lead this time. If you need sailors for the navy, recruit in the Philippines like merchant ships do. America ordered Britian to disband its empire in WWII but now cannot do without shrunken the royal navy. America is finishes as a world power. Europe is on its own and must rebuild its military or be conquered. Non-nuclear nations will be conquered by the first nuclear state whose bluff is believable. All it takes is one city destroyed to make a nations threat of annelation believable. America’s nuclear umbrella is a bluff always folded and no longer believed by its enemies. France & Israel went nuclear because the rightly did not trust that umbrella.