European Union allies have been reluctant to back a United States-led naval operation to safeguard ships from attacks by Houthi militants in the Red Sea.

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Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG), launched by the US in December, aims to protect international commercial ships from a recent raft of drone and rocket attacks by the Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group that controls a part of Yemen’s territory.

The Houthi-led attacks, which started after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, threaten to severely disrupt trade flows to Europe and have forced major shipping firms to avoid the area.

The Houthis have declared support for Hamas and have vowed to target Israel-bound ships in the Red Sea, where 12% of global trade, including 30% of global container traffic, passes.

Over the weekend, Houthi rebels attempted to sabotage a ship operated by Danish firm Maersk, prompting the US Navy to respond by sinking the Houthis’ small boats and killing ten militants.

Maersk is expected to decide on Tuesday whether to resume sending its ships through the Suez Canal via the Red Sea after it temporarily halted journeys for fears of further attacks.

The alternative detour, all the way around the south of Africa, can add as much as a month of journey time, threatening to upend world trade with delays and added costs.

Iran deployed its Alborz warship to the Red Sea on Monday, according to the country’s Tasnim news agency. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Ali Akbar Ahmadian, met with Houthi spokesperson Mohammed Abdulsalam on the same day.

Europe has found itself torn between backing US-led efforts to protect freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and safeguarding European commercial interests, whilst at the same time avoiding contributing to a sharpening of tensions in the Middle East.

According to Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, Europe faces the challenge of “striking the right balance of optics and decisions.”

“Europe is trying as much as possible to avoid further spillover in the region following the Gaza war, and hence the last thing you want is a new active frontline,” Al-Muslimi explains.

“At the same time, how do you not let the Houthis get away with this? Because that could also inspire other militia groups in the Horn of Africa.”

Some EU nations hesitant

Whilst the US-led operation originally enlisted support from six European countries, some countries have since distanced themselves from the effort amid concerns it could sharpen tensions and lead to an escalation in conflict in the Middle East.

France’s defence ministry said that it salutes initiatives to reinforce the freedom of navigation in the Red Sea such as OPG but also emphasised that its warships in the region would remain under French command.

Italy said that whilst it was committing a naval frigate to patrol the area, this would “take place as part of an existing operation authorised by parliament and not Operation Prosperity Guardian.​​”

Spain’s Defence Ministry said the country would not participate in the operation. Madrid has denied reports that it vetoed a decision on diverting the EU’s anti-piracy naval operation ‘Atalanta’, which is headquartered in Spain, to safeguard Red Sea vessels from Houthi attacks.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called for the creation of a bespoke European mission to patrol the area and protect European commercial interests.

A spokesperson on behalf of the German foreign ministry also said last week that Germany was working with its EU allies.

Some experts believe the EU must react to the Houthi attacks.

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“Europeans should step up their naval presence in the Red Sea and reinforce intra-European coordination,” Camille Lons, visiting fellow at the European Centre for Foreign Relations wrote in December, naming the project Atalanta as one of the existing mechanisms that could be re-purposed.

But according to Al-Muslimi, Western policymakers are facing a “zero-sum game” imposed by the Houthis, whose attacks have triggered a major humanitarian crisis for Yemenis.

“The Yemenis will pay the highest price,” he explained, “because it’s going to increase the food prices and the imports of goods to the country in a country that’s already torn by nine years of war, the Covid-19 pandemic and the repercussions of the war in Ukraine.”

Which European nations have intervened?

Denmark has reacted to the most recent attack on its Maersk-operated vessel with a vow to send a warship to the region to “ward off similar attacks”

The Maersk attack “underlines the severe situation in the Red Sea,” the country’s foreign minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said Tuesday.

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Greece has also said it is contributing to the US-led effort with a naval frigate, while the Netherlands has said it will contribute naval officers.

But despite these three relatively small coastal countries’ support, the reluctance of major EU nations to explicitly back the US is undoubtedly a blow to the operation.

The United Kingdom has thrown its weight behind the US operation, with defence secretary Grant Shapps vowing that the British government could take “direct action” against the Houthi rebels.

Shapps said the government would not hesitate to take “direct action” to prevent further attacks amid reports the UK and US are preparing a joint statement to issue a final warning to the Yemeni group.

The US and UK are reportedly preparing a joint statement to warn the Houthis from orchestrating further attacks, although it is not clear whether the European Union or any of its member states would also sign such a statement.

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An EU official was not available to comment on the measures under consideration as part of the bloc’s response to the attacks.

Al-Muslimi believes that the highly unpredictable nature of Houthi militant activity means any calls of warning from Western policymakers could prove fruitless.

“The Houthis are the most unpredictable group that probably exists right now in the Middle East,” he said.

“A lot of Arab countries are also suffering from the Houthi attacks more than Western countries, but there is very little they can do,” he added.

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