EU foreign and defence ministers are meeting today to approve a naval mission to destroy boats used by people-smugglers operating in the Mediterranean out of Libya. The scheme under discussion represents a break from the usual conduct of EU affairs which favours political and economic intervention over armed cooperation.
Beginning in June, if approved, the plan will involve deploying warships backed by surveillance craft to patrol the sea off the Libyan coast, some of which is controlled by hostile Islamist militias. This will be done with a view to identifying, intercepting and possibly sinking illegal vessels before they are able to reach European waters, thus disrupting the people-smugglers’ operations.
The plan represents the EU’s reaction to the humanitarian crisis arising from large numbers of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe. The journey has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,800 so far this year, a 20-fold increase on the same period last year according to the BBC.
Although today should see the mission confirmed, including details such as the Italian headquarters for operations, there will be no official start date until the UK manages to overcome Russia scepticism and secure a UN Security Council resolution in support of the action. The Libyan ambassador to the UN has signalled objections to the plan to enter Libyan waters and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has cautioned against a military solution.
Both the UK government and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, said the plan does not involved sending combat troops to Libya. Others point out that Somali pirates’ land bases were attacked by special forces as part of the EU’s anti-piracy naval mission. That operation, seen as a model for this one, was led by Italy’s Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino who will again be in charge.