After a month of near silence in Europe on a proposal to stop human smuggling across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to European shores, European foreign ministers are moving ahead this week on a plan to “disrupt” smugglers’ vessels in international or European waters.
The plan, introduced on June 22, was noted in the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council agenda, released June 21. The item, titled EUNAVFOR Med, was found near the bottom of the list of items, beneath one on Macedonia. Given its military approach, the plan might have been obscured to avoid much notice.
Reuters and other news sources quickly reported on the plan, which has been modified from an original one outlined in May, describing it as a naval “surveillance” operation against “gangs” smuggling humans from Libya to Europe. The European Union does not have approval from the United Nations Security Council to take more aggressive action, particularly in Libya itself.
The announcement of the plan sends large signals to Libya and to smugglers, however, that a major naval contingent is on its way toward the region.
“The operation is being launched today,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in Luxembourg, where foreign ministers met on June 22. “Let me be very clear: The targets are not the migrants, the targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths. It is part of our effort to save lives.”
A European Foreign Affairs Council statement said the operation would be “in full compliance with international law, including humanitarian and refugee law and human rights.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon participated in a lunch discussion at the Luxembourg meeting, but his public comments on the topic were relegated to noting “the challenges of migration.”
An Associated Press report said five naval units, led by the six-year-old Italian aircraft carrier Cavour, would include two submarines, three maritime surveillance planes, two drones and two helicopters. The boats and planes will be involved in rescue work if needed, the AP said.
The operation commander, Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, an Italian, will oversee operations from Rome.
“EUNAVFOR Med is the only operation on offer, which was agreed conceptually by EU MFAs on May 18, and launched a three stage process to full operation,” said Christopher Matthews, the press spokesman for the European Union at the UN, referring to the continent’s ministers of foreign affairs.
The current phase, Matthews said, is “limited to gathering Intel/surveillance, rather than direct engagement, search and seizure, and limited to international waters in the southern central Mediterranean.”
The second stage will entail “the search and, if necessary, seizure of suspicious vessels,” the European Council said; the third phase allows “the disposal of vessels and related assets, preferably before use, and to apprehend traffickers and smugglers.”
The council, it said, “will assess when to move beyond this first step, taking into account a UN mandate and the consent of the coastal states concerned, and subsequent phases will be conducted accordingly” — in other words, whether the force will move into Libyan waters.
A proposal to manage the unprecedented flow of migrants and attendant smuggling from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea in the last year was formally broached at the UN in May. The proposal drummed up attention worldwide, as it posed for the first time the possibility of using military force to intercede against smugglers’ vessels at sea and in Libyan ports and land.
The plan posed such practical questions as: Would boats loaded with migrants, many of whom are Syrians escaping war and Africans fed up with poverty, be attacked by European navies? Would Europe use ground forces in Libya, where a civil war is being fought and where the UN is struggling to broker peace?
Doubts on the plan remained on legal and moral grounds.
Nevertheless, efforts to find a solution to the continuing influx of sea migrants from Libya, who have been drowning in record numbers, a draft resolution was put forth by the European members of the UN Security Council — Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain — and by the Italian government. It was also circulated among China, Russia and the United States.
Russia voiced its opposition to the proposal, citing legal concerns of such an operation, even in international waters.
The resolution, which had been kept from the media and most of the elected members of the Security Council, foundered in the weeks since it materialized. Mogherini, an Italian, spoke about the plan to the media at the UN in May, but she left more questions than answers in her remarks.
Italy has been receiving most of the migrants who land in European ports, yet a majority of the migrants who get that far try to travel to northern Europe to resettle.
European leaders first met in April on the migrant smuggling problem, prompted by 800 people drowning in a sea crossing. (This year so far, more than 100,000 people have entered Europe from the Mediterranean and last year 3,300 died on the route.) The foreign ministers agreed to take actions “to prevent further loss of life in the Mediterranean and tackle the root causes of migration pressures,” the European Council said at the time.
Europe’s progress on that angle has not been obvious, whereas its attention on disrupting the migrant smuggling from Libya has stayed in the foreground.