Rethinking the EU’s actorness in the Red Sea

Rethinking the EU’s actorness in the Red Sea

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, Houhtis rebels in Yemen—supported by Iran and having proclaimed to support Palestinians’ plight—launched more than 40 attacks on commercial vessels navigating the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.[i] Due to these attacks, only half of the usual 70 ships that usually pass through the Red Sea daily actually cross the Suez Canal.[ii] Houthi missile attacks and other disruptive activities in the region go back years,[iii] but the approach to Iran and its destabilising activities via the Houthis has been lukewarm[iv]. EUNAVFOR Operation ASPIDES—launched on 19th February—has been the first EU initiative to break with this trend. The defensive operation has repelled 11 attacks by the Houthis and safely escorted dozens of ships towards the Suez Canal.[v] Notwithstanding, a more proactive security approach is necessary for the EU to protect international maritime trade and its own commercial interests in the long term.

Two regional strategies

Pinning hopes for sustained regional security on continued diplomatic negotiations with Iran, which do not contextualise Iran’s destabilising activities[vi] adequately,[vii] seems to be increasingly out of touch with the reality on the ground.[viii] The EU’s short-sightedness is epitomised by its stance on Iran,[ix] including EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrell’s continued insistence on reviving the nuclear deal[x], in addition to Spain’s refusal to divert the EU’s anti-piracy naval mission, ATALANTA, in order to increase deterrence power. ASPIDES implicitly accepts that the use of force is, after all, necessary, as is the repelling of attacks by the French and Italian navies.

While Operation Prosperity Guardian—a United States-led military coalition formed in December 2023 in response to Houthi attacks, seems to prioritise the need to strike into Yemeni territory to undermine Houthis’ source of political power[xi]—the all-defensive EU mission aims to avoid intervening in the region to ward off Houthi attacks[xii] as well as Iran’s gunboat diplomacy.[xiii] The EU’s limited regional initiatives[xiv] appear not to have produced any effective deterrent while its diplomatic relations with Gulf countries[xv] did not lead to a political resolution. This degree of indecisiveness risks allowing the Houthis’ to strengthen their arsenal with Iran’s support[xvi].

At the same time, the EU refuses to upgrade its the relations[xvii] with Israel from an ad hoc economic and trade relationship to a fully-fledged diplomatic, political and security partnership so as not to alienate Iran. Divisions between NATO and EU members on how to treat Israel prevent a synchronised position and counter-action, [xviii] significantly limiting the EU’s actorness in the matter.

The two military operations entail the duality of aims and methods, and the dispersal of resources at the expense of potentially more effective, joint involvement. This displays the EU’s reluctance to respond to very tangible security challenges, undermining any perception of genuine deterrence.[xix]

A common regional strategy

The EU should strive to support the US and its allies in mitigating the complex sources of risk that the coordination between militias in the region presents[xx]. Designating the Houthis as a terrorist organisation would be the first step in this.[xxi] Long-term planning for stability in the region would, however, also necessitate recognizing that the Houthis’ objectives as an increasingly independent political force in Yemen might ultimately succeed in establishing authority over the country, joining an explicitly anti-western axis of states and rogue militias in the region. The EU should change its rules of engagement that legitimise the Houthis’ political aspirations. Tying the all-defensive ASPIDES mission to the US-led Prosperity Guardian operation would also show commitment to the US that the EU is willing to take part in bearing the burden of upholding international security.

Returning to the negotiating table to build on already promising initiatives aimed at building a regional self-sustaining security infrastructure would indeed be a proactive approach. Frameworks such as the The EU should respond to calls to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor deal[xxii], and the International Maritime Security Construct[xxiii] and the Abraham Accords should serve as a springboard for facilitating politico-economic and security cooperation between Western countries and Middle Eastern states. The already proposed “Arab NATO” plan[xxiv], capable of creating tangible guarantees[xxv] among regional partners, could be an effective way of deterring or resolving security threats in the long term.

By declaring support for the aspirations of the Abraham Accords agreements, the EU could participate in building a set of tools and mechanisms in the Middle East aimed at curbing terrorism and other security threats.[xxvi] Falling short of building closer ties with Israel, paving the way towards this outcome would greatly benefit from at least engaging more closely with Gulf states. With regard to the question of Houthis in Yemen—but also with regard to broader, regional security threats—the EU should support the Saudi-backed and internationally recognised government of Yemen, and level sanctions targeting the Iranian and Houthis military industry, as well as Iranian support for a plethora of militant groups in the region[xxvii]. It should cement deeper political ties with Gulf states as well as Israel if it hopes to be a part of joint regional initiatives also backed by the US.

The EU and its Western partners’ division over Iran, Israel, and the degree and means of involvement in Yemen[xxviii] will continue to undermine the effectiveness of security operations and the restoration of smooth trade in the region. So long as the EU is structurally bound to defence-only missions, pinning their hopes on negotiations with Iran and the Houthis alone, the situation is unlikely to improve.

The Red Sea crisis is the consequence of a series of geopolitical events and policy decisions, including the collapse of the legitimate Yemeni government, the Houthis’ rebellion and civil war, Iran’s long-term regional destabilisation efforts via its proxies, and the continued lack of a broad coalition of Western countries, Gulf monarchies, Israel, and other willing partners united in ensuring stability in the region. Reactive and limited policies, and, indeed, inaction might soon prove to be an unsustainable approach for the EU.

[i] BBC News (2024). “Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking Red Sea Ships?” 15 March 2024, retrieved from:
[ii] Euronews (2024). “Operation ‘Aspides’: 11 Houthi attacks repelled and dozens of escorts”, 8 April 2024, retrieved from:
[iii] Dryad Global (2022). “US Navy says Yemen rebels fired missile into busy Red Sea”, 7 March 2022, retrieved from:
[iv]  EEAS, Borrell J., “Now is the time to save the Iran nuclear deal”, 30 July 2022, Available at,an%20agreement%20has%20been%20exhausted.
[v] Euronews (2024). “Operation ‘Aspides’.
[vi]  Arms Control Association, Davenport, K. (2024). “IAEA warns Iran about lack of transparency”, March 2024, retrieved from:
[vii]  Informal Foreign Affairs Council (Gymnich) (2024). “Press remarks by High Representative Josep Borrell upon arrival”, 3 February 2024, retrieved from:
[viii]  Fikra Forum, McDonough, F. (2023). “Palestinians More Positive on Abraham Accords and Open to Vying Powers Than Arab Neighbors”, 23 August 2023, retrieved from:
[ix]  Neumann, H. (2023). “Josep Borrell: Stop stabilising the brutal regime in Iran!”, 21 September 2023, retrieved from:
[x]  Xinhua (2024). “Iran, EU discuss Gaza conflict, nuclear deal”, 26 March 2024, retrieved from:
[xi]  Sabbagh, D. (2024). “US and UK prepare to launch strikes against Houthis in Yemen”, The Guardian, 11 January 2024, retrieved from: US and UK prepare to launch strikes against Houthis in Yemen | Yemen | The Guardian.
[xii]  Foreign Policy, Gramer, R. (2024). “Inside the Houthis’ stockpile of Iranian weapons”, 8 February 2024, retrieved from:
[xiii]  Radio Free Europe (2021). “US says Iran believed behind hijacking in vessel in Gulf of Oman”, 4 August 2021, retrieved from:
TRT (2023). “Iran arms navy with new Missiles as US mulls guarding ships”, 3 August 2023, retrieved from:
[xiv] European Parliament (2024). “Maritime Security: situation in the Red Sea and EU’s response”, January 2024, retrieved from:
[xv] EEAS (2021). “Gulf Cooperation Council and the EU”, 3 August 2021, retrieved from:
[xvi]  Naharnet (2015). “The EU says military action not the solution in Yemen”, 26 March 2015, retrieved from:
Teheran Times (2022). “Iran’s Kharrazi calls for “new arrangement” in Persian Gulf”, 5 July 2022, retrieved from:
[xvii]  German Institute for Global and Area Studies, Dachtler, P. (2022). “From New to Normal: Two Years after the Abraham Accords”, retrieved from:
Memo (2023). “Israel awards licences to UK’s BP, Italy’s Eni to explore gas deposits”, 3 November 2023, retrieved from:
[xviii]  Eu Observer, Rettman, A. (2024). “Italian admiral: red sea muddle shows NATO weakness”, 7 January 2024, retrieved from: “France and Italy won’t join the US-led coalition in the Red Sea. This will have no impact from an operational point of view, since navies are well trained to coordinate their actions even outside a definite chain of command, but politically it’s a proof of our weak cohesion as NATO as well as EU partners.”
[xix]  VOA, Baab, C. (2024). “US, UK strike back at several Houthi sites in Yemen”, 11 January 2024, retrieved from:
[xx]  Stimson, Mahzari M. (2024). “Is Iran losing its control over Shia militias?”, 5 February 2024, retrieved from:
CNN, Bertrand, N. (2023). “US intelligence suggests Iran involved in planning attacks in Red Sea”, 22 February 2023, retrieved from:
[xxi]  Arab News (2024). “EU must step pressure on Houthis, says Yemen Foreign Minister”, 1 February 2024, retrieved from:
[xxii]  White House (2023). “Memorandum of Understanding on the Principles of an India – Middle East – Europe Economic Corridor”, 9 September 2023, retrieved from:
[xxiii]  CENTCOM (2023). “International Maritime Security Construct Holds Change of Command”, 20 February 2023, retrieved from:
[xxiv]  Reuters, Bayoumi, Y. (2018). “Trump seeks to revive ‘Arab Nato’ to confront Iran”, 28 July 2018, retrieved from:
[xxv]  Reuters, Barrington, L. (2022). “Israel participates in huge U.S. Mideast naval exercise alongside Saudi, Oman”, 2 February 2022, retrieved from:
[xxvi]  Jewish Insider, Rod, M. (2023). “Defense bill provision could be key to combating Iran, Houthi threats at sea, senators say”, 31 December 2023, retrieved from:

[xxvii]  Asharq Al-Awsat, Nasser, M. (2024). “Yemeni Military: Iran Controls Houthi Naval Attacks”, 1 March 2024, retrieved from:
[xxviii]  Al Jazeera (2022). “Timeline: UAE under drone, missile attacks”, 3 February 2022, retrieved from:
Al Jazeera (2019). “UAE says four ships subjected to ‘sabotage’ off east coast”, 13 May 2019, retrieved from:

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