EU Approves Mission Against Migrant-Smugglers Operating in Libya
Naval operation likely be launched next month but scope of mission is still uncertain
BRUSSELS—The European Union agreed to launch a mission against Libyan migrant-smuggling gangs , though its scope depends on backing from Libya's fractious authorities and the United Nations Security Council.
The move by EU foreign and defense ministers puts the bloc on course to launch some kind of naval operation as soon as next month. The plans approved by the ministers on Monday calls for the mission to be based in Rome and headed by Italian Rear Adm. Enrico Credendino, EU officials said.
The EU has envisaged an operation that would start as a monitoring and intelligence-gathering one but could eventually deploy force at sea—and potentially on the Libyan coast—to capture and destroy smugglers' vessels, embarkation points and fuel dumps.
But the operation faces numerous legal and political hurdles , including the challenge of securing the support of two sets of rival Libyan authorities. The EU is also seeking a mandate from the UN Security Council for the mission but faces concerns from Russia and China—both veto-wielding members of the council—about allowing the use of force in and around Libya to destroy smugglers' vessels.
EU officials say the bloc is legally required to secure Libyan permission or a UN Security Council resolution for the mission to operate on the Libyan coast, or to seize and destroy smugglers' vessels in international waters.Without that authority, EU diplomats say the mission would be much less effective.
“What we approved today is important enough: It is a concept for such a mission. But there are still legal and practical issues to be addressed before the mission can be put in practice,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Monday.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has spent weeks trying to win international backing for the EU operation, which is part of the bloc's broader plan to address a migration crisis that has seen thousands of people die in the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to reach Europe. The collapse of law and order in Libya has allowed a people-smuggling trade to thrive along its coast and left Europe exposed to an increasing wave of migrants fleeing strife or in search of a better life.
Ms. Mogherini on Monday stressed the need for Libyan backing for the mission. “There is a responsibility the European Union can take, but there is first of all a responsibility the Libyans themselves have to take on their territory and their borders, be they land borders or sea borders,” she said.
The internationally recognized government in Tobruk must back the mission, Ms. Mogherini said, but it is also critical to win approval from other Libyan power centers in places such as Tripoli and Misrata.
But that is likely to be tough. Mohamed Al Barghathi, interior minister for the Tripoli-based opposition government, said an EU plan that included military action would be unwelcome, and he questioned whether it would stem the flow of migrants.
“Military action won't solve the problem,” he said. “Just because Libya is in a state of war doesn't mean the only answer to a problem is military.”
Mr. Al Barghathi said that the Tripoli-based government, known as the General National Congress, would be willing to “put aside politics for the moment” to cooperate with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives to “save these people from killing themselves,” and he called on the EU to provide logistical support.
Ms. Mogherini has ruled out placing boots on the ground and played down the military aspects of an operation. The EU has also said the mission isn't aimed at countering thegrowing threat of Islamic State in Libya.
Libyan support could help smooth the way for support from Russia and China.Diplomats say Moscow wants no repeat of the 2011 UN resolution that paved the way for a campaign led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to oust former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
EU officials said the bloc had only begun to address questions about whose support would be needed within Libya, what form that consent would take and what to do if the two sides in the Libyan conflict set different conditions on approval.
Monday's decision, however, paves the way for the EU to step up intelligence-gathering on the smuggling gangs. But some ministers were frank about how little was clear about the operation.
“It's too early yet to talk about what…the real operation we should do,” said Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist. “We are now discussing an intelligence and information activity and…what will happen in the next step and the step after that, we shall see.”
Another question facing the bloc is whether to seek help from NATO for the mission.While a draft EU mission mandate did raise the possibility of an alliance contribution, diplomats say NATO involvement could further complicate winning Russian support for it at the United Nations.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on his way into Monday's meeting that said there had been no formal request for NATO involvement but that the alliance stood ready to play a role if asked.
Both Mr. Stoltenberg and Ms. Mogherini played down reports of links between people traffickers and terrorist groups in Libya, including the possibility that the gangs were helping transport terrorists into Europe. Ms. Mogherini, however, said it was possible the revenues brought in by the smuggling gangs were being used partly to fund terrorist activities.
—Tamer El-Ghobashy in Cairo contributed to this article.
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