Europe to Launch Anti-Smuggling Mission, Rejects Migrants Scheme

European countries will go after people smugglers in the Mediterranean but hesitate to take in more asylum seekers.

The Dutch amphibious warfare ship Johan de Witt
The Dutch amphibious warfare ship Johan de Witt (Ministerie van Defensie)

European defense and foreign ministers agreed on Monday to deploy naval forces in the Mediterranean to stop the smuggling of people across the sea. But a separate plan to more equally distribute migrants across the European Union was criticized by key member states.

Hundreds of asylum seekers have drowned in recent months when their boats capsized. The flow of people from especially wartorn Libya threatens to overwhelm the bloc’s Mediterranean border states.

Federica Mogherini, Europe’s foreign policy coordinator, said there was a “clear sense of urgency” in Brussels to tackle the problem. “As summer comes, more people are traveling.”

Her native Italy has so far taken in more than 30,000 of the 51,000 migrants that entered Europe by crossing the Mediterranean this year. The United Nations’ refugee agency estimates that 1,800 have perished at sea.

The European Commission last week proposed a quota system to spread the burden of housing asylum seekers. Eastern European countries as well as France and Spain were critical

French prime minister Manuel Valls argued that because asylum is a right, “the number of its beneficiaries cannot be subject to quotas.”

Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, said high unemployment in his country meant it couldn’t take in more people. “Pledging to take in migrants to whom you cannot provide work would be, in my opinion, providing a bad service,” he said. (Even though the commission plan covers asylum seekers who cannot legally work until their status is determined.)

Both their countries admit fewer migrants relative to their populations than do Germany and Sweden which take the major share. All new member states in Central and Eastern Europe except Bulgaria and Hungary take in less than half the asylum seekers they would under a proportionate system.

A military effort against people smugglers was unanimously approved although member states will contribute on a voluntary basis. Mogherini said the mission could be launched as early as June, pending recommendations from an Italian-led team of officers and approval from the Libyan authorities to operate in their waters.

Navy ships from different countries would patrol the Mediterranean and possibly sink vessels used by smugglers.

Germany cautioned against rushing to use force. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, its foreign minister, said, “We’ll have to deal with this problem for a long time still and the measures we adopt now will still take time.”

France and the United Kingdom, Europe’s two largest military powers, were reportedly more keen to go after the smugglers — even though Britain is not in the Schengen free-travel area and would not need to take in more asylum seekers under the European Commission’s proposed scheme.

As veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, the two Atlantic states are also leading efforts to get an international mandate for the operation.

To assuage the concerns of Russia, which also has veto power in the Security Council, the European Union will seek approval from both of Libya’s two rival governments for its mission.

Libya’s internationally-recognized government in Tobruk only controls the eastern half of the country. A more Islamist administration sits in the capital, Tripoli. Jihadists who profess affiliation to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have taken advantage of the fighting between the two sides to expand from their base in Derna along the central coast.

The Italian island of Sicily is only a few hundred kilometers away from Libya. The lack of a central authority has turned the country into a launching pad for African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees.

Libya has been unable to restore order since longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in a civil war in 2011. NATO airstrikes, urged by Britain and France, helped rebels bring down his regime.