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16th Oct 2021

EU anti-trafficker plans beset with difficulties

  • EU leaders aims at hitting smugglers' boast before they embark migrants towards Europe. (Photo: Royal Netherlands Navy)

EU chief diplomat Federica Mogherini is in New York and Washington trying to secure international backing for the EU plan to fight migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean.

She met US Secretary of state John Kerry and was due to meet US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power on Wednesday (29 April).

The day before she was at the UN in New York where she met diplomats from permanent and non-permanent Security council members including Jordan, the current chair of the council, and Spain.

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  • EU chief diplomat is tasked with preparing legal ground for anti-smugglers operations. (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

Mogherini was tasked at last week's emergency summit on migration to prepare the ground for an operation to "identify, capture and destroy" boats used by smugglers to transport migrants towards Europe.

"We need to make sure that we have framework of international legality, in which we want to operate," said Mogherini at a press conference at the UN.

"There is nothing we are going to do that is outside of the framework and we work together with the UN and/or in partnership with the Libyan authorities," she added.

This approach brings a double layer of political difficulties, even before operational details can be discussed.

While action against the smugglers was mentioned by several EU leaders at last week’s summit, implementation remains fraught with legal and political difficulties.

First, Mogherini needs to convince the UN and its most influential members of the legitimacy of the planned operation.

UN Secretary general Ban Ki Moon has referred to the Mediterranean as "a sea of tears, a sea of misery" but he also expressed opposition to any action against migrant smugglers' boats.

"Destroying the boats is not the appropriate way, it’s not the good way," Ban said earlier this week.

"Fishing may be a very important source of earnings . . . if you destroy all these boats that could be used to transport migrants then you may end up affecting the general economic capacity of those people," he added.

The most obvious way to get a green light from the UN is a security council resolution. But Russia and China, who have a veto power, are very unlikely to support a resolution.

As the EU does not have a seat in the security council, it would need either France, the UK or Spain to present a text.

"What I can say is that we are working in Brussels and in strong coordination with the European Union members of the security council to make sure that our planning, our options that are being prepared in Brussels, go hand in hand with the discussions that can be made in the security council," Mogherini said at her press conference

The EU chief diplomat was careful to talk about "a framework of international legality", which suggests an alternative to a security council resolution could be sought.

Atalanta model

The EU Atalanta mission against pirates in the Gulf of Aden has been cited as a model - both military and legally - on which the anti-traffickers mission could be based.

But "Atalanta was a very specific issue" that cannot be replicated, an EU source told EUobserver.

The mission was requested in 2008 by the UN Secretary general himself to protect World Food Programme ships from pirates.

"If the UN approach doesn't work, we’ll have to find something else. It will take time," said the source.

Another obstacle is cooperation with Libya - currently in a state of chaos.

The country is divided between two competing authorities which the UN, with EU support, is trying to convince forming a government of unity.

But a government in Libya would not necessarily mean the EU gets permission to destroy traffickers' boats.

"Taking out boats without our permission would be considered a declaration of war against Libya," an official from Libyan Dawn was reported as saying.

Based in the Libyan capital Tripoli, Libyan Dawn is one the two main political forces in the country, with an unrecognised parliament contesting the authority of the legal parliament. It is also suspected of being involved in the migrant trafficking.

In the meantime, the EU is also working to address the roots of the migrant flow to Europe.

Beefing up EU action in Niger and Mali to improve control of the borders to prevent migrants leaving the country is on the table. Talks are being held with Libya's neighbours - Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria.

"[We will] not focus only on the last part of the trip but also on the rest of the security we need to build. This is definitely part of my mandate," said Mogherini in New York.

Destroying boast "catches the collective imagination, but it’s the end of the chain," the EU source told this website.

"The things we can do the most rapidly are not the ones on which the spotlights are".

EU to target migrant smugglers

EU leaders on Thursday declared war on migrant smugglers and promised to triple the monthly budget of the EU’s sea surveillance mission, Triton.

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