Europe’s Confusion in Securing Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea

2024/05/12 | Note, political, top news

Strategic Council Online – Opinion: The strategic Strait of Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea have recently faced serious problems and crises due to the Gaza war. This is because of the protectionist approach of the Yemeni army forces toward Palestine, which, since the beginning of the Israeli regime’s attacks on the Gaza Strip, has included attacks on ships bound for or from the origin of the regime in the Red Sea. They said they will continue their attacks until the Israeli regime's military aggression in the Gaza Strip ends. The United States, as the most important supporter of the Israeli regime, was the first country to respond to this policy of Yemeni army forces and tried to form a global coalition to counter these attacks under the cover of supporting freedom of navigation, which, of course, failed because of conflicts of interests of Western countries and ended in the actions of the US and British attacks on positions in Yemen. Of course, although European countries were not seriously involved in the American coalition, they have numerous and complex interests in this inflammatory, and as a result, have adopted a particular and independent approach. Dr. Mohammad Mehdi Mazaheri – University Professor

In this regard, on February 19, 2024, the European Union announced the beginning of the maritime mission of the Union in the Red Sea, known as “Aspides,” A mission whose scope is defined along the Strait of Bab al-Mandab, the Strait of Hormuz, as well as international waters in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman, and according to European officials, it is a bold move to protect the commercial and security interests of the European Union, and It has been an international community. Although it is a common practice in international relations to justify the actions of countries in the form of popular words and narratives to understand and analyze the foreign policy of these actors, one must see the real goals and interests behind their decisions.

In response, one of the primary reasons that make insecurity in the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea an important issue for the European Union is the influence of the Zionist lobby in these countries and, therefore, their commitment to protecting the interests of the Israeli regime. While European countries are trying not to directly link their operations in the Red Sea to support Israel due to the high civilian casualties in Gaza (to preserve their human rights profile), it is no secret that these countries are the main supporters of the Israeli regime and try to secure the Red Sea trade route to allow shipments to reach them, providing food and logistics to Israel and exporting the regime to other countries.

In 2023, nearly 100 million tons of Israeli imports were made from the Bab al-Mandab crossing, and Houthis’ attacks on cargo moving from the strait to the Occupied Territories will have very negative consequences in meeting the regime’s needs.

On the other hand, a large part of Israel’s exports come from this strait; according to the existing statistics, 38 percent of Israeli goods are exported to European markets, while 35 percent of them are exported to America, 24 percent to Asia and the rest to Africa and Ukraine. Shipping to other countries, and as a result of these conditions, the Zionist regime’s economy will suffer a huge loss. Therefore, it seems that the main purpose of the European countries in the Red Sea military presence is to support the economic life of its strategic ally, the Israeli regime.

However, the geopolitical position and strategic position of the Bab al-Mandab Strait as the third most important artery in the world after the Strait of Gibraltar and the Strait of Hormuz are other factors that make this area important for European countries. The Bab al-Mandab Strait, as a strategic passageway connecting Asia to Africa, leads to Yemen in the east and Djibouti to the west and is the crossroads between the two continents. The Bab el-Mandeb is also a bridge connecting ships to the Suez Canal; between the two is the Red Sea, which is important to global trade.

The Strait has enabled fast and low-cost connections between Asia and Europe and from Europe to America. About 12 percent of global trade volume and 30 percent of the world’s container ship traffic flows through the Strait, and about 4 million barrels of oil are transported daily from Bab al-Mandab en route to Europe. Therefore, it is natural that European countries cannot be indifferent to insecurity in this strait and strategic sea.

On the other hand, the anti-Israel actions and attacks of the Yemeni armed forces on merchant ships bound for the Zionist regime have not only threatened the trade and economy of the regime but also troubled its economic supporters; as Joseph Burrell, EU foreign policy chief has claimed in describing the reasons for the European naval mission in the Red Sea, “that attacks by the Yemeni armed forces cause maritime traffic to the Cape of Good Hope. Change course, which means 10-14 days more travel. “The cost of moving a container from China to Europe has doubled, and shipping insurance increased by 60 percent.” Maritime transport is also the basis of the industry of European countries, especially Germany, where more than 90% of goods reach Europe by sea, and the current situation of the Red Sea has caused bottlenecks in the supply of goods and raw materials, forcing some European companies to halt production. Therefore, maintaining economic trade interests is another important goal and policy of the European Union in the Red Sea.

However, it seems that the European Union has not been very successful in securing its interests and demonstrating power in the Red Sea. Conversely, the recent naval mission of the member states has caused some of the key rifts and problems within the EU, as well as some of their transatlantic differences. The mission primarily showed that the EU member states are far from reaching common policies and that the gap and disparity between them is too much to form a unified military approach between them; of the 27 EU member states, only four, namely France, Germany, Italy and Belgium agreed to assist with the deployment of ships to the EU mission in the Red Sea. So the mission began with four frigates, but after the German frigate Hesse ended its mission in the Red Sea on April 20, 2024, the European Union’s ASPIDES mission in the Red Sea is at risk of a shortage of equipment and bottlenecks in protecting merchant ships in the Red Sea, indicating the EU’s weakness in the common military approach and the definition and continuity of an extraterritorial operation.

On the other hand, EU countries were reluctant to support the US-led naval mission that began in December 2023, apparently because the EU was concerned about escalating conflicts in the region, although this stance in itself indicates a weakening of America’s standing in the world system, the European approach seems to have another reason; the member states of the EU have not been able to fall under the American banner. They see their own image and credibility and seek to form an independent European bloc. However, it seems that the European Union is far from forming such a bloc, and this has seen their disagreement in joining the American coalition; the coalition in question was initially supported by six EU member states, but then the three countries withdrew from this mission, and ultimately the United States carried out attacks against targets in Yemen only with Britain. These developments show that although EU member states seek to define their goals and interests and, therefore, an independent and common foreign policy in the global arena, their lack of uniform and coherent positions, along with defensive equipment weaknesses, leads to the presentation of a less rigid picture of this union in the international arena.

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