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What should the EU’s role be in the Red Sea’s conflicted waters?

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Good morning. News to start: The leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany has told the FT that Brexit is “a model” and that she will hold a referendum on EU membership if elected.

Today, I reveal what the EU’s biggest countries are proposing the bloc’s navies should do in the Red Sea, and Lithuania’s foreign minister tells my Brussels colleague how the EU should tighten its sanctions on Moscow.

Plus: How can liberal democracies meet the challenge of mass migration? Join FT journalists Martin Wolf and Alec Russell and expert guests on January 24 at 13.00 GMT for a webinar exclusively for FT subscribers. Put your questions to our panel here and register for free here.

All at sea

France, Germany and Italy have urged as many of their fellow member states as possible to contribute to a plan to send EU naval assets to the Red Sea — but made clear the deployment should build on an existing mission in the region, and not try anything untested that could provoke a regional backlash.

Context: Hamas’s October 7 attack against Israel has sparked spiralling violence across the Middle East, including sustained missile and drone attacks by Yemen-based, Iran-backed Houthi rebels on Red Sea shipping. A US-led naval mission is bombing them in response, while many ships are taking lengthy detours around Africa to avoid the threat.

Earlier this month, Brussels proposed sending an EU-flagged mission to the conflict zone, which got in-principle agreement last week. EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss more details today — as part of a wider Middle East debate that will include possible “consequences” for Israel if it continues to block Palestinian statehood.

Ahead of that, the bloc’s three biggest members have laid out some guardrails for the nascent naval mission, named ASPIDES. Their key demand is that it “mak[es] use of the already existing structures and capabilities” of an existing naval mission — AGENOR — which the three countries participate in off the coast of Iran.

That mission, the three countries state in a joint paper sent to their EU allies and seen by the FT, “managed to build a considerable degree of trust and confidence with regional Arab States, while never entering in a confrontational mode with Iran”.

The three authors “call upon other Member States to consider favourably their participation, with naval assets or staff contributions”, but add that the mission could be launched under Article 44 of the EU’s treaties, which allows a small group of countries to be entrusted with a task on behalf of all the others.

EU officials involved in the planning of the mission say that it would entail the use of lethal force. But some member states are more squeamish about direct engagement in what could feasibly develop into a full-blown regional war.

“We are not fighting piracy here. We are fighting a much more complex thing, which is, non-state actor with hybrid fighting abilities,” said one official, referring to the Houthis. It’s a difficult, difficult operation, but the political will is there. We really consider that this is necessary for our security.

Chart du jour: Atomic dominance

Russia dominates the world’s supplies of enriched uranium at a moment when demand for nuclear fuel is surging. Read our deep dive into the US-led plan to break Moscow’s dominance.

Lost in transit

Lithuania is calling on the EU to ban a wider range of industrial exports from passing through Russia, over fears that many of the goods are being diverted to help Moscow’s war effort, writes Andy Bounds.

Context: The EU has passed 12 packages of sanctions against Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago. But there is evidence that Moscow can still get its hands on crucial technology.

Ukraine published a report last week stating that it had found western components in many Russian weapons. “All Russian missiles have dozens of critical components manufactured abroad, many of them by companies from the free world,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, will argue for a tighter regime at today’s meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers.

“It’s a very clear request from Ukraine,” he told the FT. “The Baltic countries are the gateway to the east. That means if there’s a circumvention and if it’s going from Europe directly to Russia, it could go through us.”

He said many goods that pass through Russia en route to third countries in fact never made it out again, allowing Russian factories access to vital parts.

“The best thing would be that we make a decision that you cannot transit through Russia. You cannot go via Russia because we don’t believe that we’re able to control it,” Landsbergis said.

As the European Commission works on its next package of sanctions, the fight to make existing measures work better continues.

What to watch today

  1. EU foreign affairs ministers meet in Brussels.

  2. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hosts French President Emmanuel Macron in Berlin.

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