Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

Interview

Italian general: EU anti-migrant operation likely to fail

  • 'It’s just a continuation of what has been done so far by Italy' (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence)

Italy’s former defence chief has said the EU’s anti-migrant smuggling operation is likely to bring more, rather than fewer, migrants to Europe.

General Vincenzo Camporini, Italy’s chief of defence from 2008 to 2011, told EUobserver in an interview that the operation, EUnavformed, will encourage smugglers to set adrift more people in the Mediterranean Sea because there’ll be more EU ships which are obliged, under international law, to rescue them.

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“In essence, it’s helping the smuggling operation because it provides people with more means to reach their desired objective, which is to land in Europe”, he said.

“It’s just a continuation of what has been done so far by Italy, but also using vessels from other countries”.

He described EUnavformed as a political gesture designed to make the European public think their leaders are doing something.

“It’s the same as the fight against Isis [Islamic State]”, he said.

“If we compare the political declarations and the actual facts on the ground, we have very few concrete results. The engagement of Western countries, including the US, is more symbolic than real”.

Camporini noted the migrant crisis poses a serious threat.

“Just this morning [23 July], I read that 2,000 people were rescued in the past 24 hours and taken to Italy. I hope this doesn’t represent a new average, because that would mean hundreds of thousands each year, which is unsustainable for Europe even if EU states agree to distribute them more evenly”.

He defended EUnavformed’s deployment of war machines, such as the two submarines taking part in the operation.

“Submarines have very strong capabilities to listen to what’s going on, to get situational awareness, which helps [the operation] to reach the migrant boats in a co-ordinated way”, he said.

The operation is designed to go further - to destroy smugglers’ boats and fuel depots - if the EU gets permission from the UN Security Council or from the Libyan government.

But Camporini said that even if it does, the fragmentation of Libya and the EU’s one-sided politics will cause problems.

The EU and the UN have recognised the government in Tobruk as their only interlocutor. But there are rival governments in Misrata and in Tripoli, which control large parts of the coast, as well as smaller warlords and IS-controlled enclaves.

Camporini said this means EUnavformed will face “a reaction from local armed groups”. He also predicted the smugglers will use migrants as “human shields” to protect their assets from European firepower.

“The European public is very sensitive to losses. The loss of even one [EU national] soldier would create a public backlash far beyond the loss of life of 100 Libyans or migrants”, he noted.

“But collateral damage is also something that the European public won’t abide.”

The retired general, who now works as a security consultant for Italian energy firm Eni, contrasted the company’s pragmatic approach with the EU effort.

“They [Eni] are still capable of managing their operations in Libya, not because they pay off local chiefs or tribes, but because they’ve managed to convince them that their operations are in the interest of local communities,” he said.

“It’s a matter of convincing people that they have a vested interest in good relations with Western powers.”

“The EU should be more flexible, more realistic, in its discussions with local authorities," he added.

“So far, if I was a leader in Tripoli, I wouldn’t trust the international community. The fact we recognise Tobruk and don’t recognise Tripoli means they have a lower status at the negotiating table and this isn’t bringing any fruitful results. I would let the people in Tobruk understand they can't have our support at any cost.”

Looking back to Italy-Libya relations before the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, he said fewer migrants came to Europe because Italy had a deal with Gaddafi to keep them away.

“Of course, there are humanitarian considerations to take into account, because we knew that those migrants who were kept on shore by Gaddafi, and who were impeded from crossing the Mediterranean, were not treated well,” he noted.

“But this worked as a kind of deterrent to people when they were deciding whether to stay at home or to cross the desert and enter Europe,” he added.

“If I knew the road is easy and open, I would have fewer reservations about going than if I knew it would be difficult.”

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