European Union governments took a first step toward combating the smuggling of refugees from Libya by beefing up patrols and intelligence gathering in the Mediterranean Sea.
Planning will also go ahead for a military mission to intercept refugee boats on the high seas or seize and destroy them in Libyan territorial waters -- controversial steps that would require approval by the United Nations Security Council.
“We adopted the crisis management concept and the decision to establish the operation with headquarters in Rome,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters on Monday in Brussels after a meeting of national ministers. “This will allow us to start the operational planning and to prepare for the launch of the operation.”
The use of force to break up human-trafficking networks would be the EU’s boldest military venture ever, with the risk of drawing the 28-nation bloc into Libya’s civil war. Several EU governments refused to contemplate military operations without the endorsement of the UN or Libya’s fractured leadership.
Foreign ministers may give the final go-ahead for the mission at their next meeting in June. Mogherini said the EU hopes to have a UN resolution by then.
“People are cautious about this but they’re also conscious of the fact that there are boats leaving northern Africa that are not going to make it across the Mediterranean,” Irish Defense Minister Simon Coveney said.
The EU was rattled into action by the drowning of at least 700 people when a refugee boat capsized off the Libyan coast last month. Syria’s strife, the dissolution of Libya and turmoil in northern Africa have pushed migration to Europe to levels not seen since the early 1990s, with 185,000 gaining asylum in the EU in 2014.
Libya is the transit route for about 80 percent of migrants smuggled across the Mediterranean, the EU estimates. Italy, the main contributor to European naval patrols, has repeatedly called for backup and will have overall command of the stepped-up mission.
There are legal questions mingled with concerns that a military mission might backfire by encouraging more northern Africans to brave the journey or by offering a free ride to jihadists bent on reaching allies already in Europe.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg backed the EU mission, while warning against opening a backdoor to terrorists disguised as political refugees. He said the EU hasn’t asked for support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was instrumental in the ouster of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
“There might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists also trying to hide, to blend in among the migrants,” Stoltenberg said.