Europe

EU backs migrant crisis naval force

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Media captionEU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called the approval of the plans ''an absolute record''

EU ministers have approved plans to establish a naval force to combat people-smugglers operating from Libya.

The aim is to launch the operation next month, with a headquarters in Rome under an Italian admiral, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.

The EU is struggling to cope with a surge in illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe.

Ms Mogherini was speaking after talks with EU foreign and defence ministers.

The UK is playing the lead role at the UN Security Council in drafting a resolution that would give the EU a legal basis for using military force against people traffickers.

There would be three phases in the naval operation, the EU foreign policy chief explained:

  • Intelligence gathering on smugglers
  • Inspection and detection of smugglers' boats
  • Destruction of those boats

"It is not so much the destruction of the boats but the destruction of the business models of the (smugglers') networks themselves," she explained.

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Image caption The UK has joined the EU effort to stem the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean

Libyan role

Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the plan was in the early stages, but the UK would help to develop it further.

"We are seconding some planning staff to think through the details of how it will work," he added.

"Any destruction of boats will require some legal authority and that has to come from the United Nations but we are not at that stage yet."

Ms Mogherini stressed that co-operation with officials in Libya, a country torn apart by feuding militias, would be vital to make the operation succeed.

"We are looking for a partnership - there is a responsibility the Libyans themselves have to take on their territory, for the land and sea borders."

The EU would have to work closely not only with the recognised government in Tobruk - represented at the UN - but also with rival officials in Tripoli and Misrata, to dismantle the smuggling networks, she told a news conference in Brussels. "The [Libyan] municipalities might have an important role to play," she said.

The Mediterranean mission will be led by Adm Enrico Credendino, an Italian commander who ran the EU's anti-piracy mission off Somalia, Operation Atalanta.

More than 1,800 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in 2015. That is a 20-fold increase on the same period in 2014.

Disrupting the people-smuggling networks is part of a wider EU plan for tackling the migration crisis. The European Commission has urged EU states to adopt national quotas for housing migrants, to ease the pressure on Italy, Greece and Malta.

The EU also aims to tighten co-operation with migrant transit countries in Africa, to make it easier to send economic migrants home. Too many irregular migrants with no right to asylum manage to stay in Europe, the Commission says.


Analysis - Rana Jawad, BBC North Africa Correspondent, Tunis

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Neither of Libya's rival governments, recognised or not, have yet shown any desire to co-operate with this plan. Both have so far criticised it. Some Libyans have been incensed by the proposal and see it as a pretext for "boots on the ground".

For nearly a decade Libya's smuggling networks included not only professional gangs but also some local communities - and even the parts of Libya's coastguard looking to make extra cash. Add the hundreds of militias that have ruled Libya since 2011 to that mix and the challenge grows exponentially.

It is not clear how destroying boats at sea would stem the flow of migrants. If there are plans to destroy boats on standby before they leave Libyan shores then that would require a significant amount of intelligence on the ground. EU member states have no official presence in Libya.


Is military force the solution?

Why is the EU struggling with migrants and asylum?

Migrant survivors' stories

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Image caption The EU's mission off the Horn of Africa is seen as a model for the mission off the Libyan coast

Some 60,000 people have already tried to make the perilous crossing from Libya this year, the UN estimates.

Many are fleeing conflict or poverty in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.

The mission could mean operating in areas controlled by a potentially hostile Islamist militia, and EU forces taking considerable risks to destroy boats and infrastructure used by smugglers.

The EU's Operation Atalanta off Somalia is regarded as a model for the new Mediterranean mission. In 2012 EU forces raided Somali pirate bases on land.

A UN mandate that allows EU operations on Libya's coast would require a chapter seven UN resolution and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has already cautioned against a military solution.


Analysis: Chris Morris, Europe correspondent, BBC News

There is plenty of operational planning still to do before the mission actually starts.

Much will depend on when Britain is able to shepherd a resolution through the UN Security Council, and what precisely the resolution approves.

The idea is that the mission will begin with intelligence gathering, which is already taking place anyway, and then operations against smugglers on the high seas.

But phase three is the most risky part - naval operations within Libyan territorial waters, close to or on the Libyan coastline.

EU officials have said repeatedly that there will be "no boots on the ground". But there will need to be an effort to disrupt the onshore operations of the smuggling gangs if the mission is to achieve its objectives.

That could well involve the use of special forces, something that will not be advertised in advance. And there will be huge risks involved for the EU - political and military.

It's just that doing nothing is an even less attractive option.