EU foreign ministers to agree on Mediterranean intelligence operations

The Mediterranean crisis sparked outrage and horror in the European Union. [James Crisp]

EU foreign affairs ministers will today (22 June) agree on an intelligence gathering operation, the first phase of the bloc’s response to the burgeoning migration crisis in the Mediterranean, but military action against people smugglers will depend on the support of Libya’s National Unity Government and the United Nations.

Ministers will agree in Luxembourg to work together to get strategic information as a prelude to planned-for missions against people smugglers to “destroy their business model”.

But those operations, which could include military action, will not happen unless there is a United Nations resolution supporting them, according to EU diplomats.

Smugglers are charging migrants fees before putting to sea in unsafe boats, mostly from Libya. They leave the vessels in the water to be picked up by European border forces. Maritime law obliges patrolling vessels to rescue people in trouble.

Italy, Greece and Malta are bearing the brunt of the crisis. In April, EU leaders agreed to double the size of its Mediterranean search and rescue operations. They will discuss the migration crisis at their summit in Brussels on Thursday (25 June

UN support critical

The intelligence phase can go ahead without the UN’s permission. The exact nature of second and third steps still needed to be refined and defined, an EU diplomat said.

The intelligence-gathering would inform that, the diplomat added.

Russia will only support a UN resolution, if the EU can secure the agreement of Libya’s National Unity Government, the diplomat said.

Civil war wracked Libya’s government will meet this week. If a letter of agreement is backed, it could mean other phases of response could be rolled out before summer.

There had been positive signs that the National Unity government would agree, an EU diplomat said, but military action would not go ahead without a UN resolution.

Several EU member states would only support the move with UN backing, which made it imperative, a diplomat said.

International organisations estimate tens of thousands of African and Asian migrants are likely to attempt the journey per month, mostly from Libya. Last year, the death toll eventually reached 3,200.

Where refugees should be settled after rescue is controversial. EU diplomats said the resettlement issue “was no longer an issue” but would not say which countries had agreed to take in refugees as part of a move towards sharing out the exodus of people across the EU.

At their last summit, leaders discussed a pilot project to resettle 5,000 to 10,000 refugees from Mediterranean countries in other EU states, the senior diplomat said.

But, despite European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s intervention, that was watered down to a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement for those qualifying for protection.

The number of migrants entering the European Union illegally in 2014 almost tripled to 276,000, according to EU border control agency Frontex, nearly 220,000 of them arriving via the often dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

The chaotic situation in Libya has sparked a rise in migrant boats setting out for Europe from its unpoliced ports carrying refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

In 2013, Italy’s previous government initiated the search-and-rescue operation "Mare Nostrum" or "Our Sea" after hundreds drowned in an incident off the coast of Lampedusa.

But Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of €9 million a month amid divisions over whether the mission was unintentionally encouraging migrants to attempt the crossing.

That made way for the European Union's border control mission, Triton. However Triton, which has a much smaller budget and narrower remit, has been criticised by humanitarian groups and Italy as inadequate to tackle the scale of the problem.

  • 25-26 June: European Council meeting in Brussels.

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