December 21, 2018 / 11:46 AM / 3 months ago

EU extends Mediterranean mission by three months despite Italian threats

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union has prolonged the mandate of its naval security mission in the Mediterranean until the end of March, it said in a statement on Friday.

The mandate of the mission will remain unchanged despite Italy’s threats to quit it if migrants rescued at sea by the operation’s ships were not shared among EU states.

Operation Sophia was launched in June 2015 to counter migrant smugglers in the central Mediterranean and reduce arrivals to European shores.

By strengthening the coastguard of Libya, the country from which most migrants have in recent years attempted the perilous journey towards Europe, the mission has contributed to bringing down arrivals from more than a million in 2015 to a tenth of that figure this year.

Despite the drop in arrivals, Italy’s far-right home affairs minister Matteo Salvini has pushed for months to change the mandate of the mission to make sure migrants picked up in the Mediterranean are shared among EU countries instead of being mostly brought to Italian ports.

Under international rules, enshrined in Sophia’s mandate, people saved at sea must be delivered to the closest and safest ports, which in most cases are in Italy, given the mission’s area of intervention.

The mission also has its headquarters in Rome.

Salvini had threatened to bar Sophia’s ships from bringing migrants to Italian ports if the rules were not changed, but the mission mandate has been extended with no changes, an EU official said.

The three-month prolongation of the mission is meant to give more time to negotiators to find a compromise before a possible longer extension of Sophia.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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