• Jan Haverman

Piracy, kidnapping and maritime instability: The Gulf of Guinea has caught Europe’s attention

The European Union has evolved its maritime policy in order to regain control over African waters.

Already two years ago, in 2019, the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) called Brussels for help. The situation in the Gulf of Guinea was ‘’alarming’’ and especially the waters of Nigeria had become growingly dangerous (the country alone accounted for 41 kidnappings during the last months of 2018). The unrest in the region only rose these past two years, seriously threatening the maritime security in the Gulf area. Eventually, on the 25th of January this year, the European Union came with a final and concrete response: the initiation of the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) concept. This relatively new initiative aims to strengthen the role of the European Union as partner and provider of security in the Gulf of Guinea. The CMP seems to be in line with the EU's growing emphasis on naval security in the last decades, where the open sea has become a matter of Union priority. It’s decision to pick the Gulf of Guinea as pilot case is therefore mildly surprising. The waters are an important fishing ground for Europe, a provider of oil and gas but fiercely threatened by piracy. Whether Europe’s coordinated presence will succeed depends on the willingness of member states and the efficiency of regional cooperation. That’s not all, the EU risks losing diplomatic control with the prospect of Russian and Chinese influence. While the project just launched, doubts about its potential success have already been raised.

With over 70 percent of maritime borders and around 90 percent of its external trade passing the oceans, the European Union is strongly connected to the international waters. Member states rely on well-functioning maritime infrastructure for the export and import of goods and energy. But only from 2008 onwards, the EU prioritised its Maritime Defence Strategy. With Operation ATALANTA, the EU launched its first fleet (EUNAVFOR; European Union Naval Force Somalia) which aimed to counter piracy at the Horn of Africa. In 2015, the EU conducted its second centrally coordinated operation, this time to disrupt people smugglers in the Mediterranean waters (Operation SOFIA). Over the course of the last ten years, the maritime perspective has become fully integrated in Europe’s general security policy (European Union Global Strategy).

Already in 2013, the Gulf of Guinea became an area of Maritime Interest for European policy makers. With an oil import of 13 percent from this region, the EU was determined to fight any form of piracy in this region. As a result, it feverishly looked for ways to stabilise the maritime waters. With the so-called Yaoundé architecture, the Union appeared to have found a solution. Together with coastal states, it created a new maritime security framework, built around regional cooperation bodies. The framework aimed (and still aims) to prevent illicit activity on water by establishing an extensive information network, creating awareness around pirating and assisting local navies with European and American fleets. Despite this work, the situation in the Gulf area only deteriorated.

According to an annual report of Dryad Global (a British intelligence firm) this year, international organisations like the UN, NATO and the EU have been surprisingly inactive with finding suitable solutions for the piracy problem in the Gulf of Guinea over the last years. While Dryad Global points out international inaction, the European Union stresses the primal responsibility for Western and Central African states to act against piracy (Yaoundé Code of Conduct, 2013). The EU already did so two years ago, during the 2019 Global Security Conference. The reality is, despite the question of quilt, that the international policy against organised crime has failed.

In 2020, 35 crew members were kidnapped from their vessels, with the Gulf of Guinea accounting for approximately 95 percent of these cases. Additionally, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) reported 195 incidents of armed robbery last year, with the area - again - being responsible for the majority of incidents. A lack of onshore opportunities and high levels of unemployment in the coastal states invite inhabitants to engage with illegal activities offshore. Organised crime, in the form of human trafficking, smuggling of drugs and arms as well as illegal fishing, have risen in the Gulf. Unreported and illicit fishing causes an annual loss of 1.5 billion dollars for local governments. With 25 percent of the jobs being linked to the fisheries, it’s a source for social and economic tensions. Especially in Nigeria, the economic centre of the region, organised crime hits hard. 120.000 barrels of oil are stolen every day, accounting for 6 percent of its total production.

By establishing a Coordinated Maritime Presence, Brussels tries to turn these developments around. With the new pilot case, the EU aims to become a reliable partner and security provider for the region. It wants to offer better operational engagement and ensure permanent presence of maritime assets. As stated in the Council conclusions of January 25th, the EU will lay down the groundwork for a more coherent participation of National navies in the Gulf of Guinea in order to reach stability. The Union aims to improve the coordination of maritime actions by setting up a Maritime Area of Interest Coordination Cell (MAICC). Furthermore, it wants to stimulate the voluntary sharing of information among member states, regional partners and various commissions (like the Gulf of Guinea commission) to improve awareness of potential threats. A successful CMP would allow the European Union to improve its diplomatic visibility, promote international cooperation and ensure maritime presence.

There are, however, a few challenges that threaten Europe’s project of maritime presence. Besides coordinated cooperation with regional partners and member states, the United States and the EU should synchronise their actions. They typically operate alongside each other, which negatively affects the effectiveness of maritime operations (e.g. providing unnecessary training for regional navies that already has been given by the other). In addition, national navies of European member states have suffered reductions in defence budgets. Rather than combining forces to tackle the budget loss, naval industries have been increasingly nationalised. This threatens Europe’s aim of permanent and flexible military presence. Furthermore, as maritime participation is based on a voluntary system, Member states with particular interests in the Gulf of Guinea (like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium) shall have to consider the advantage of participating within the European framework. Some may appreciate the legitimacy and relative anonymity that the EU offers, while others might think it weakens their political message and conflicts their interests.

Even more challenging for Europe is the rising competition for global influence with Russia and China. Over the past couple of years, Europe’s rivalry with Russia has developed a distinct naval character. The same goes for China, who has been winning global and maritime influence ever since it started its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. Chinese authorities have been working on large scale infrastructure projects including ports and overseas military bases. If Europe were to become stuck in a growingly tense maritime environment, it would risk becoming a target of international power politics.

Will Europe’s Coordinated Maritime Presence succeed? Only time will tell. For we know one thing for sure, without the willingness to participate - either with member states of the United States - and the effectiveness of regional cooperation, Europe can’t make a fist. As with marriage, good communication is key. The fight against organised crime at the Gulf of Guinea will be challenging, and the diplomatic struggle over influence with Russia and China just so. By January 2022, Europe reflects on its CMP pilot study in African waters. Before that time, we hope to receive nothing but good news from the European Community Shipowners’ Association.


This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.

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