EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini
Brussels. — EU nations approved plans yesterday for an unprecedented naval mission starting next month to fight human traffickers responsible for a flood of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libya. Launched after a series of deadly shipwrecks in which hundreds of people drowned, the military operation will involve European warships and surveillance aircraft being deployed off the North African coast.

But the EU is still waiting for a UN resolution that will allow it to destroy boats that belong to people smugglers in Libyan waters, the epicentre of the humanitarian disaster unfolding on Europe’s southern shores.

“Decision just taken to establish the EU naval operation to disrupt the business model of smugglers and traffickers networks,” EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said on Twitter after a meeting of the bloc’s foreign and defence ministers.

The military operation is part of a bigger EU blueprint for a migrant crisis that has seen more than 1 800 people dying this year while trying to make the dangerous crossing in flimsy dinghies and fishing boats.

More than 5 000 people have died in the past 18 months.

Mogherini later told a press conference that operational planning for the EU Navfor Med mission – to be based in Rome and led by Italian Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino – would start immediately.

She said it could be formally launched in June after a summit of European leaders, adding that she hoped for UN Security Council approval so the EU could “launch the operation in all its phases”.

Brussels was also seeking approval from Libya despite the political chaos there following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with two rival governments and the rising threat of Islamic State militants. The final phase of destroying smugglers’ boats in Libyan waters is the most controversial, with the organisation Human Rights Watch describing it as “utter madness”.

Pressure has grown on governments to act after an overcrowded migrant boat sank in the Mediterranean last month, leaving more than 750 dead in a case that sparked international outrage.

Nato head Jens Stoltenberg, also attending the meeting in Brussels, said the US-led military alliance was ready to assist but the EU had not yet asked for help.

He also warned that “terrorists” from Islamic extremist groups could also be making the crossing by “trying to hide, trying to blend in among the migrants”.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have already promised to deploy warships for the mission, a rare joint EU military venture for a bloc that was formed to promote peace after WWII.

Brussels wants to take the operation step-by-step, starting by collecting intelligence on the traffickers by using radar, satellite pictures and reconnaissance flights and raiding unflagged boats.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said ministers needed to put together a complete programme, with the current plan “an important first step”. He said cooperation with Libya was also key.

The rest of the European Commission’s migrant plan remains dogged by divisions. Suggestions of a quota system to share the migrant burden more evenly among member states, instead of relying on Mediterranean nations to deal with asylum seekers, has had some countries up in arms.

Spain joined Britain and France in rejecting the idea yesterday.

Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo said the Commission’s call for solidarity had to be “proportionate, just and realistic”, adding that it took no account of Spain’s high unemployment and the “huge effort we are making to control migration from Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal which impacts the whole EU”. — AFP.