EU agrees to use force against migrant smugglers
Brussels - The European Union has agreed on a naval mission to target gangs smuggling migrants from Libya.
Many hundreds of deaths at sea, including the drowning of up to 900 people on a single vessel in the Mediterranean in April, jolted European governments into a more robust response but, beyond greater funding for rescue operations, the European Union is divided on how to act as anti-immigrant parties gain support domestically.
“This is just the beginning. Now the planning starts,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said of the naval mission, adding that the operation could start in June.
Details remain unclear as member states consider options.
“There is a clear sense of urgency,” Mogherini said of the migrants, most of whom attempt to reach her native Italy. “As summer comes, more people are travelling.”
The European Union wants to capture smugglers and destroy their boats off the Libyan coast to help control the rising number of migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. But it wants UN authorisation to operate close to the shore of a country that has descended into anarchy since Western powers backed a 2011 revolt that ousted Muammar Qaddafi. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Europe to act, saying Islamic State (ISIS) militants might be “also trying to hide, to blend in among the migrants” to infiltrate Europe.
Some 51,000 migrants have entered Europe by crossing the Mediterranean in 2014, with 30,500 arriving in Italy. About 1,800 people have drowned in the attempt, the UN refugee agency says.
At an emergency summit in April in Brussels, EU leaders agreed to “identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”.
Mogherini flew to New York in May to seek support for a draft resolution by Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows the use of force to restore international peace and security.
Without UN authorisation, the European Union’s naval mission, which is to have its headquarters in Rome, will not have the mandate to intervene in Libyan territorial waters to seize vessels.
“Nothing will happen without a UN mandate,” said Austrian Defence Minister Gerald Klug.
But EU diplomats say the European Union can start using ships, drones and helicopters on the high seas to gather intelligence about people smugglers, although the impact will be limited.
A 19-page document for EU ministers envisages four phases, starting with deployment and assessment and culminating in a “disruptional phase”. A UN Security Council Resolution “is not required for the first phase”, the document said. As part of its migrant strategy, the European Commission unveiled a plan to take in 20,000 more refugees over the next two years, a response to an emergency that saw more than 600,000 people seek refuge in the European Union in 2014.
The EU executive also proposed a quota system to spread out among countries the burden of housing hundreds of thousands of people while their claims for asylum are processed. At present, a few countries, notably Germany and Sweden, take the major share.
The idea appeared to be in jeopardy, however.
Britain has rejected any quota, exercising an established exemption from EU migration policies. The French prime minister has said he is against quotas because France has already taken in thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq since 2012.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said Spain’s chronic unemployment meant it could not help. “Pledging to take in migrants to whom you cannot provide work would be, in my opinion, providing a bad service,” he said.
Slovakia and Hungary are also against the quota system.
Libya’s internationally recognised government rejected any military operation against ships carrying illegal migrants after EU members approved plans for a naval mission starting next month to fight human traffickers.
“Any military action must be done with the cooperation of the Libyan authorities,” government spokesman Hatem el-Ouraybi said.
“The military option to deal with the boats inside Libyan waters or outside is not considered humane.”
“The government will not accept any violation of Libyan sovereignty,” Ouraybi said, and “will not accept the plan unless it is coordinated” with Libya’s internationally recognised administration.
Libya has descended into chaos since the NATO-backed ouster in 2011 of Qaddafi, with rival governments and powerful militias battling for influence in the oil-rich North African state.