72 hours to launch NATO’s migrant mission
It appeared the tallest of tall orders. German government officials were given just three days to turn a seemingly unworkable idea — sending NATO ships to the Aegean Sea to deter people-smugglers from taking migrants from Turkey to Greece — into an official proposal with the backing of all NATO allies.
In the space of 72 hours, they had done it. By Thursday morning, Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary general, was telling reporters about a plan to begin the mission “without delay.”
The mission “will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal crossings in the Aegean Sea in cooperation with relevant authorities, and to establish a direct link with the European Union’s border management agency Frontex,” Stoltenberg said.
“It is key that we act swiftly,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters, urging NATO officials to fill in the details after the ministers had given their political endorsement.
When the idea first came up on Monday, it seemed unlikely that it would ever come to fruition: A military alliance doing the job of police forces and coast guard agencies; NATO meddling in the EU’s struggle to protect its maritime borders; the Americans getting involved in affairs they see as purely European; and, most importantly, Athens agreeing to an idea that originated in Ankara, when the two governments barely communicate.
So when German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s idea on Monday, just two days ahead of the NATO ministerial meeting, she left a lot for her political and administrative staff to do. Frenetic behind-the-scenes negotiations followed, according to sources who were involved.
Devil in the detail
First came the technicalities, and here NATO was fortunate. Its Standing Maritime Group 2, made up of five ships at present, is already deployed in the Mediterranean, with the German supply vessel Bonn taking the lead, backed up by Italian, Canadian and, importantly, Turkish and Greek navies.
Three of those ships are ready to help tackle the migration crisis, Stoltenberg said. On Thursday, diplomatic sources told POLITICO, three more countries had pledged ships, including Denmark. A senior NATO staff member said the numbers were already large enough to efficiently carry out the operation.
Then there was the political need for the operation: Bringing down the number of migrants crossing the maritime border from Turkey to Greece is key for the success of every part of the puzzle that European leaders are trying to put together to manage the influx of migrants.
Well over a million refugees arrived on Europe’s doorstep last year, many of them via Turkey, which has been hosting some 2.5 million Syrian refugees for several years.
“NATO is well set to monitor the situation closely and to let Turkish authorities know about activities at their coast,” the German government official said.
“The art was now to have a joint proposal to the secretary-general, (signed) by Greece and Turkey, ready within 72 hours,” the source said.
Greeks on board
First step was Merkel calling Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Tuesday. His spokesperson, Olga Gerovasili, said the prime minister had made it clear that a NATO mission could only take place on Turkish territory, and there was no proposal made for Turkish-Greek joint patrols.
That didn’t seem the most promising of starts.
But NATO diplomats saw a way to please everyone, reading Tsipras’ demand as Athens not wanting Turkish ships to interfere in Greek territory. “That looked operationally manageable,” a military source said.
“That was not complicated to resolve. We made a great step forward,” the German government source said.
Indeed, “as part of the agreement, Greek and Turkish armed forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters or airspace,” Stoltenberg said Thursday.
The second step was to get everyone on board. Important NATO members received phone calls from Berlin. Some, like Italy, were not hard to convince. Other were not quite as excited. The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, didn’t rule out help on Tuesday, but he said dealing with the refugee crisis is primarily the EU’s job, rather than Washington or NATO’s.
But President Barack Obama had made his position clear late Monday, saying that he wanted “to see the United States working in concert with our NATO partners and European Union partners to address the humanitarian crisis and also to make sure that we’re going after some of the human trafficking networks that have been developing and are profiteering off the misery of others.”
The third hurdle was the hardest to overcome, the Germans believed: Making sure the NATO mission wouldn’t end up acting as a transport company for migrants, as the EU’s rescue operations in the Mediterranean were perceived by many.
While the mission’s mandate does not involve stopping or pushing back boats, international law does require NATO vessels to rescue people who risk drowning.
But when NATO ships rescue people, they’ll take them back to Turkey rather than on to Greece. “That’s important. Turkey doesn’t make any trouble taking people back,” the German source said.