Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

The latest tragedy off the Libyan coast has triggered a chorus of calls for Europe to be much more aggressive in stopping such a huge loss of life.

There is newfound political impetus to find a better solution: EU leaders will gather for an emergency summit on Thursday. Yet many remain at odds over a problem that poses immense practical and political challenges.

Can anything be done to stop the deaths in the short term?

International aid agencies are calling for Italy to immediately relaunch “ Mare Nostrum” — an expansive search-and-rescue operation in place between October 2013 and December 2014 that had Italian vessels patrolling the waters of the central Mediterranean up to the edge of the Libyan coast. But that operation was wound down at the end of last year among criticism from other EU countries, and many rightwing and centre-right politicians in Italy, that it simply encouraged more migration. Italy was also worried about the cost of €9m per month — at a time of tight public finances. As Mare Nostrum ended, the EU started a new border control mission known as Triton, but it is only patrolling within 30 miles of the Italian coast, meaning it inevitably takes longer for rescuers to respond to a distress call from migrant boats.

Isn’t the source of the problem in Libya?

Yes. Indeed, even if Mare Nostrum or an operation like it could be restored, it would not necessarily spell the end of the emergency.

Since the fall of Muammer Gaddafi in 2011, the north African nation has been rocked by a bloody civil war, and the warring factions — the secular internationally-recognised government in Tubruq on one side, and the Islamist Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli on the other — are still battling for control.

Such chaos has been fertile ground for ruthless human traffickers, who often help fund the feuding militias with the cash they receive from migrants looking to make the trip to Europe from all over the Middle East and Africa.

UN-led peace talks are under way, but a deal does not seem within grasp at this point, meaning any improvement in Libya seems far off. And there seems to be no appetite for military intervention in Libya in the absence of a peace agreement between the sides.

Who is to blame?

Finger-pointing has begun in Brussels. The European Commission cannot do much since individual countries are responsible for monitoring their own borders.

This makes life harder for those on the periphery of the EU, such as Spain, Greece and Italy. Both Spain and Greece have increased security on their land borders, forcing people to risk the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. Italy feels like it has been left alone with the burden of rescuing the migrants and caring for them once on land.

While member states have repeatedly called for more action from the European Commission, they have been unwilling to put more money at its disposal.


Funding per month for Operation Triton

What options are being considered?

The tragedy has jolted the EU into action. A meeting of ministers on Monday gave a warm welcome to a 10-point plan from the Commission, which included potentially doubling the assets and funding for the Triton mission and expanding its mandate. This should eventually provide Italy with more support. Other possibilities include a mission to capture and destroy smugglers’ vessels and ways to share the burden of refugees between EU states. These will be fleshed out at an emergency meeting of EU leaders on Thursday.

How wide are the differences within Europe on how to tackle the crisis?

There is momentum for reform but big differences still remain. Countries such as the UK and Germany worry big missions encourage more people to make the dangerous trip. Turning Triton into a “fully-fledged” search and rescue operation, able to operate more than the current 30 miles off Italian shores, remains contentious.

Other controversial proposals also need to be fully developed. A mission to destroy smugglers’ vessels poses serious practical and legal issues. The question of an “emergency relocation mechanism” — moving migrants to a different EU country from their place of arrival — is also a fraught subject that ministers have resisted tackling in the past.

Get alerts on EU immigration when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article