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EU rushes to take action against traffickers

Bernd Riegert, Brussels / jsMay 19, 2015

The European Union is in a hurry, with plans to launch an EU military mission against human smugglers in the Mediterranean in June. But enthusiasm for the plan in Germany is muted. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Symbolbild Flüchtlinge Mittelmeer EU
Image: Reuters/I. Zitouny

The so-called "jumbo council" of all European Union foreign and defense ministers has decided to embark on a new military operation in order to stop human traffickers in Libya that send thousands of refugees towards Europe every week. The EU has decided to stop them by force, if necessary.

The EU has commissioned an Italian admiral, headquartered in Rome, with the task of preparing an operational plan and military rules of engagement for the fight against human traffickers.

The EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Frederica Mogherini - who comes from Italy, the main destination for refugees - has vehemently lobbied foreign ministers in order to push through her ambitious plan.

Search, capture, destroy

The European Union intends to proceed against traffickers in four phases. Firstly, naval aircraft and satellite reconnaissance is to be improved in order to determine when and where boats full of refugees are being launched. In the second phase, boats are to be captured and destroyed in international waters.

The third phase will see this interdiction take place in Libyan waters. And in the fourth phase operations focused on the destruction of the boats and facilities of the traffickers are to be conducted in the ports where they are located; in other words, in Libya.

There are no provisions for ground troops. The traffickers are to be attacked from the air, or shelled from EU naval ships.

EU working on a UN mandate

EU Mogherini beim EU-Außen- und Verteidigungsministertreffen
Plan will hopefully be ready to go by June, says MogheriniImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has said that the operation is not directed at refugees. Naturally, no boats with refugees on board will be targeted.

In Brussels, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen also said that, "rescue has to be the priority."

Parallel to military planning, the Mogherini is also negotiating with members of the UN Security Council to draw up a UN resolution to provide a human rights basis for the EU mission.

Mogherini said that a UN mandate would be necessary to proceed against traffickers' ships sailing under a Libyan flag. She is also working on an agreement with Libyan authorities.

However, there are currently two competing governments in the North African state, each with their own parliament. There are also a number of militias operating there, some of which are suspected of working with the traffickers. "Hopefully already at the next Foreign Affairs Council in June we might be ready to adopt the launch of the operation," said Mogherini.

Karte Libyen mit Tobruk Englisch

Without Libya, if necessary

The EU's chief diplomat is no longer concerned with serious resistance from Security Council members China and Russia. Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz, who has been impatiently pushing for the EU mission, said that securing a UN mandate was imperative.

In the event that an understanding cannot be reached with Libyan authorities, actions without them must be legitimate. "We cannot make things more difficult for ourselves than they already are," said Kurz, noting that Libya and other African countries of origin bear responsibility for the refugees.

Mogherini stated that there is a need to work more closely with the countries of origin, but that, "We cannot relieve them of their own responsibility."

Germany to participate - maybe

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier supports the EU's mission against human traffickers, but added: "We know that the mission is not an answer that in any way eliminates the refugee problem."

Von der Leyen also said that Germany's navy would not "automatically" participate in the fight against traffickers.

Von der Leyen mit Hammond beim EU-Außen- und Verteidigungsministertreffen
German Defense Minister von der Leyen: plan is not 'automatic'Image: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Currently, two German ships are in Mediterranean waters supporting the rescue of shipwrecked refugees. German Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Müller criticized the EU plan in an interview with the "Passauer Neuen Presse" newspaper, saying that it entailed too many risks and did nothing to solve the actual problem.

Criticism has also been voiced by parliamentarians and refugee aid agencies. The European Council for Refugees and Exiles in Brussels, for instance, believes that the already adverse situation of refugees in Libya waiting to cross the sea to Europe will only get worse.

According to the non-governmental organization, abuse and exploitation of the refugees will only increase if they are unable to leave. The European Commission estimates that half a million people, mostly from Africa and Syria, are waiting in Libya for a chance to flee.