By Ian Traynor
The European Union is to launch military operations against the networks of smugglers in Libya deemed culpable of sending thousands of people to their deaths in the Mediterranean.
An emergency meeting of EU interior and foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, held in response to the reported deaths of several hundred migrants in a packed fishing trawler off the Libyan coast at the weekend, also decided to bolster maritime patrols in the Mediterranean and give their modest naval mission a broader search-and-rescue mandate for saving lives.
A summit of EU leaders is to take place in Brussels on Thursday to hammer out the details of the measures hurriedly agreed on Monday. The 28 EU governments called for much closer cooperation with Libya’s neighbours, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Niger, in an attempt to close down the migratory routes. But senior political figures and EU officials conceded this would be difficult and also voiced scepticism about the emphasis on targeting the traffickers.
Following the reported deaths of around 1,300 migrants in three incidents in less than a fortnight in the waters south of Sicily, the pressure was on the EU and its member states to come up with new policies addressing headlines branding the incidents “Europe’s shame”.
“I hope today is the turning point in the European conscience, not to go back to promises without actions,” said Federica Mogherini, the former Italian foreign minister who is the EU’s chief foreign and security policy coordinator and who chaired Monday’s meeting.
The meeting “identified some actions” aimed at combatting the trafficking gangs mainly in Libya, such as “destroying ships”, Mogherini said.
Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for migration issues, said the operation would be “civil-military” modelled on previous military action in the Horn of Africa to combat Somali piracy. The military action would require a UN mandate.
No detail was supplied on the scale and range of the proposed operation, nor of who would take part in it. But European leaders from David Cameron to Angela Merkel and Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, were emphatic on Monday in singling out the fight against the migrant traffickers as the top priority in the attempt to rein in a crisis that is spiralling out of control.
“[This is] a systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers. The positive results obtained with the [Somali] operation should inspire us to similar operations against smugglers in the Mediterranean,” said the European commission.
But Rihards Kozlovskis, the Latvian interior minister, said the scheme could run into problems. “How can it be done?” he asked. “It’s not so easy this civil-military operation. We’re talking of the territorial waters of third countries.”
A senior EU official doubted whether the focus on targeting the traffickers would work. “The idea of surgical strikes on traffickers is not very serious. Do they know enough about the traffickers to mount a military operation?”
A main focus of complaints about the EU’s lacklustre response to the situation in the Mediterranean has been the limited scope of the Triton naval patrols run by the union’s Frontex borders agency. Triton replaced a much bigger, more ambitious, and more effective Italian navy mission last year.
Monday’s meeting agreed to expand the Frontex operation, increase its funding and assets, extend its zone of patrolling beyond Italian territorial waters, and ordered it to do more to save stranded migrants rather than simply secure the EU’s external frontier.
With migration professionals and Frontex itself warning that there are hundreds of thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East waiting in the chaos of Libya to board unseaworthy vessels bound for Europe, the meeting made a few tentative moves addressing the vexed issue of where refugees and asylum-seekers should go in the EU. There is no common policy, no sharing of an influx, and national governments are determined to retain prerogatives over deciding their own refugee admissions policies.
The ministers and officials announced a modest pilot scheme to resettle 5,000 refugees on an EU-wide basis, with countries volunteering to take part. Mogherini spoke of consensus being reached on more willingness “to share responsibility for the resettlement of refugees.” EU asylum officials are to go to the Mediterranean frontline states of Italy and Greece to conduct “joint” processing of asylum applications which were to be dealt with within two months of the claims being lodged.
Save the Children accused the EU of dithering as children drowned, after they failed to agree immediate action to set up a European search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean.
Save the Children CEO Justin Forsyth said: “What we needed from EU foreign ministers today was life-saving action, but they dithered. The emergency summit on Thursday is now a matter of life and death.
“With each day we delay we lose more innocent lives and Europe slips further into an immoral abyss. Right now, people desperately seeking a better life are drowning in politics. We have to restart the rescue – and now.”