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Opinion

Opinion: Sinking ships won't solve the problem

EU foreign ministers want to begin their military intervention against human traffickers immediately, after presenting their plan at the NATO summit. DW commentator Bernd Riegert hopes that they won't go through with it.

The European Union seems to be deadly serious about its adventurous plan to take military action against refugee smugglers in Libya. During this week's NATO summit in Antalya, the EU's foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini explained her plan to use cannons to shell the boats of human traffickers, much to the astonishment of the foreign ministers. Should the United Nations and the rival governments in Libya approve the plan, the EU would begin assembling a flotilla charged with the mission of sinking the boats of smugglers in Libyan waters, or to locate and destroy them on land.

Mogherini, the former Italian minister of foreign affairs and security policy, who is now responsible for European foreign policy, is under increasing pressure from Rome. Italy wants to finally do something about the influx of refugees landing on its shores.

Mogherini is approaching the project with single-mindedness, and for European standards, a breathtaking pace. Following the death of more than 800 people in the refugee disaster this April, EU leaders gave her the task of reviewing viable plans for military action in the Mediterranean. Things were not necessarily intended to go this quickly, nor be this radical, at least as far as the German government is concerned. Berlin is now attempting to slow things down behind the scenes, and with good reason.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert

DW's Bernd Riegert

Many unanswered questions

There are indeed a lot of questions to be answered. Who will decide what a smuggler's boat is, and what isn't? Will the heads of smuggling syndicates be captured, or just their henchmen? And how will legal criminal prosecution be organized? Isn't there a danger that innocent civilians will die if EU troops intervene, especially on land in Libya? How will the EU protect itself against counterattacks?

After all, it is assumed that smugglers, who make billions, are closely allied with any number of heavily armed militia groups. This is not a mission against pirates, like the one off the coast of Somalia, in which the firepower of the ships involved in "Operation Atalanta" were vastly superior to those of their opponents.

But the most important question of all is - can the use of arms really solve the refugee problem? The answer is clear: no. People who can no longer flee over the Mediterranean will end up stranded in Libya, under miserable conditions. After a while, migrants and smugglers will find new routes. Through Turkey? Tunisia?

The European Union must first solve its inner conflicts over quotas for newly arrived migrants before anything meaningful can happen. Arguments seem pre-programmed. Some states are already tying this absurd military plan to the quota issue, saying that they will only approve military action against smugglers when refugees are more fairly distributed. Shipwrecked people as hostages in a game of political haggling. It's pure cynicism.

Yes, fight human traffickers, but not like this

Of course, it's right to try to stop bands of criminal human traffickers. But their business model will not collapse when boats are sunk, but rather, when immigration to Europe becomes legally possible. Then there will be no demand for smugglers. Beyond that, the oft invoked cooperation with migrants' countries of origin remains a pious hope. The reasons for fleeing persist.

Great Britain, Hungary, Slovakia and other countries are strictly opposed to admitting more migrants. That fact will make the necessary changes to immigration policy all the more difficult. If the EU decides to put its faith in gunboats, it will play into the hands of the hardliners. They would prefer that Europe completely close itself off to refugees in the same way that Australia has done.

And even if the United Nations - including Russia and China in the Security Council - signs off on the EU's mission plan, Libya's authorities would have to approve it as well. That could be the most difficult hurdle that Federica Mogherini's militant plan would have to clear. No Western style governmental organizations or structures exist in that chaotic country.

By the way, Libya slid into its current state in part because of NATO's good intentions to help out during its civil war. A new EU military operation will do nothing to stabilize the situation. With the effects of such an operation on refugees, and on Libya, so impossible to calculate, the EU should keep its hands off.

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