Stop the boats

European Union ministers are turning their navies on the Mediterranean migrant traffickers

THE agreement reached by European Union foreign and defence ministers on May 18th looks tough and decisive. EU leaders look ready to take the fight to the smugglers o fmigrants from North Africa by deploying naval forces to destroy their boats and disrupt their criminal network. But in reality the strategy is a risky experiment born of increasing political panic.

Governments know their voters want conflicting things. They do not want the moral shameof pictures on their televisions throughout the summer, of thousands of desperate people pleading to be rescued from sinking hulks or the bodies of the drowned washing up on European beaches. But the sour anti-immigrant mood in much of Europe means there is little enthusiasm for allowing the same people a legal path to settlement. A plan drawn up by the European Commission for a burden-sharing migrant quota system has already been rejected by Britain, France and several other countries. Nor, after the costly foreign adventures of the previous decade, is there any appetite for nation-building interventions in the benighted, conflict-riven lands the migrants are escaping from.

The operation, according to the EU’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, is likely to be formally launched after the European summit on June 25th and will be led by an Italian admiral based in Naples. It will begin with an intelligence-gathering operation (Britain is offering surveillance drones). Better information is needed in order to disrupt the smugglers’ operations on shore in Libya (where most of them are based): particularly, when the boats with their human cargoes are setting sail and from which ports.

The next phase will require naval ships deployed by EU Navfor Med, as the mission has been dubbed, to intercept and board what are deemed to be “hostile” vessels, preferably before they have left Libyan waters. The boats will then be confiscated and destroyed, with their passengers returned to their point of embarkation. A further phase of the operation could include the destruction of smugglers’ boats on land or in harbour by helicopter gunships or even special forces, though Ms Mogherini made no mention of “boots on the ground”. NATO has also offered its help if requested. The alliance’s secretary-general, the former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, said that one of the problems the EU force might encounter is foreign terrorists trying to hide among the migrants.

The precedent for this approach is the EU’s anti-piracy patrol off the coast of Somalia, Operation Atalanta, that began in 2008 and which continues today. In 2012, under more assertive rules of engagement, EU naval forces attacked one the pirates’ safe havens, destroying a number of their speedboats and some of their infrastructure. Critics feared that the action would lead to an escalation in violence, but it proved a powerful deterrent, as pirates realised that their ability to conduct their business on shore with impunity had been lost.

However, it would be wishful thinking to assume that the campaign against the Somali pirates, which has met with considerable success, can be easily repeated against the people-smugglers in Libya. While naval operations have contributed to the defeat of the pirates, other factors have been at least as important. Above all, ships transiting pirate-infested waters became much better at defending themselves—many now carry armed guards. The chances of being able to damage the smugglers’ boats without unacceptable collateral damage are also much lower. From the moment they leave port they will be stuffed with people. While in port, it will be difficult to distinguish them from legitimate fishing vessels. Indeed, smugglers’ business model often involves renting the boats for a few days rather than buying them. Will EU helicopter pilots be able to tell the difference between boats sometimes used for illicit trafficking and those whose owners stay away from the criminals?

There are diplomatic trouble spots to be negotiated as well. At least some EU members are insistent on getting legal authorisation for action, through a UN Security Council Resolution. The hope is that Russia will refrain from using its veto, but there is no love lost between the government of Vladimir Putin and the EU, which is imposing tough sanctions on it over Ukraine. In Somalia, the EU naval force is being cheered on by the Somali government. However, the officially recognised Libyan government in Tobruk, which is fighting an Islamist rival in Tripoli as well as militias loyal to Islamic State, says that it will not support the plan. “The military option to deal with the boats inside Libyan waters or outside is not considered humane,” said a government spokesman, Hatem el-Ouraybi.

Many are sceptical whether the plan can work. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, senior officers in Italy’s coastguard service, a semi-autonomous wing of the Italian navy, which is at the sharp end of the migrant crisis, applauded any attempt to target criminal outfits, but warned that if one route to Europe was blocked off, desperate people would find others. Michael Diedring of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a lobbying group, fears that migrants from Eritrea, Syria and west Africa will still risk death in their bid to reach Europe, but will simply die in more remote places, away from the television cameras. A cynic might think that Europe’s governments would consider that outcome at least a partial success.