BRUSSELS — The European Union plans to launch a naval mission in the Red Sea within three weeks to help defend cargo ships against attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen that are hampering trade and driving up prices, the bloc’s top diplomat said Wednesday.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that he expects the bloc’s foreign ministers to sign off on the mission when they meet on Feb. 19. Officials say that seven EU countries are ready to provide ships or planes. Belgium has already committed to send a frigate. Germany is expected to do the same.
The Iranian-backed Houthis have waged a persistent campaign of drone and missile attacks on commercial ships over Israel’s offensive in Gaza against Hamas which began in October. However, the Yemen-based rebels have frequently targeted vessels with tenuous or no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for global trade between Asia, the Mideast and Europe.
Last week, US and British forces bombed multiple targets in eight locations used by the Iranian-backed Houthis. It was the second time the two allies conducted coordinated retaliatory strikes on the rebels’ missile-launching capabilities.
Borrell insisted that the EU mission — dubbed Aspides, from the Greek for “shield” — will not take part in any military strikes and will only operate at sea.
“This is the purpose: protection of the ships. Intercepting of the attacks against the ships. Not participating in any kind of action against the Houthis. Only blocking the attacks of the Houthis,” Borrell told reporters before chairing a meeting of EU defense ministers in Brussels.
The ministers discussed which member country should lead the naval effort — France, Greece and Italy are vying for that role — and where the mission’s headquarters should be based, but no decisions were made public.
Greek Defense Minister Nikos Dendias said that his country’s bid was welcomed.
“I informed my counterparts that Greece is offering the Larissa Headquarters as the Headquarters for the Operation, as well as that it is ready to lead the Operation. Our offer was positively received,” he wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
Larissa hosts the Hellenic Air Force and NATO headquarters in Greece.
Borrell said that businesses have been demanding EU action, given the trade implications of forcing merchant ships to bypass the Red Sea on their way to and from Europe.
“Many European firms asked us to do that because their business model is suffering a lot due to the high increase in cost and having to go down to South Africa,” he said, referring to the alternative route that commercial ships are taking. “It’s affecting prices, it’s affecting inflation. So, it’s a natural endeavor for us to try to avoid this risk.”