NATO defense ministers agreed Thursday to move forward cooperation with the European Union in cracking down on human smuggling across the Aegean, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters, though Ankara emphasized its opposition to NATO’s anti-trafficking mission.
NATO defense ministers have decided to continue the Alliance’s deployment in the Aegean to help curb illegal migration, Stoltenberg said, taking the mission launched in February to the next level. “Thanks to our joint efforts, together with Greece and Turkey, the flow of migrants has decreased substantially,” he said.
Ministers also decided that NATO’s new maritime security operation in the Mediterranean, dubbed Operation Sea Guardian, will support the EU’s anti-migrant smuggling mission, Operation Sophia. “Within two weeks, NATO ships and planes will be in the central Mediterranean, ready to help increase the EU’s situational awareness and provide logistical support,” Stoltenberg said.
Stressing that cooperation between NATO and the EU has intensified, Stoltenberg said that the two alliances were planning “practical steps” to “move our cooperation to the next level.” He said that he and the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini would report on those plans in December. Mogherini and the defense ministers of Finland and Sweden also joined the second day of NATO’s meeting Thursday.
Turkish opposition to the mission remains strong, however, with Ankara arguing that the sharp drop in refugees trying to get to Greece means there is no longer a need for warships to patrol its coast.
Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik told other NATO defense ministers in Brussels that Ankara no longer saw a need for the mission to continue beyond the end of December. “This was a temporary mission, and the goal has been reached in this temporary mission. There is no need to extend it further,” Isik said. “Whether this NATO force is here or not, we will continue our battle against this migrant movement,” he said.
After Thursday’s summit, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos remarked that the continued presence of NATO in the Aegean was important as it had reduced the influx of refugees but also because “it has helped our allies in NATO observe Turkish provocation, violation of international rules and the attempt to create a climate of upheaval between two members.”
Greece’s Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas has expressed the fear that Turkey might not honor an agreement with the EU to curb illegal migration, leading to a renewed influx of migrants into Greece, where reception centers are already overcrowded.