The European Unions “master plan” to fight human traffickers seems little more than another sabre rattling announcement. In recent weeks the EU has made it clear it wants to intervene in Libya to close down the human smugglers, but wants someone to provide legal justification before it does so. The EU has gone to the UN and now NATO seeking someone to provide a resolution supporting their proposed use of force to close down smuggling networks in Libya.
The question that remains somewhat unanswered- despite repeated EU conferences and statements- is can EU action alone close down the smuggling networks? Because make no mistake about it EU action will most likely not be supported by either the Tobruk Government or Tripoli regime, though for vastly different reasons. Indeed it seems strange that the EU is considering acting without engaging with local partners.
At present the EU plan- depending on who is speaking and who the target audience is- is somewhat unclear. Various options have been mooted from an enlarged maritime patrol- expanding the current Frontex led Operation Triton; to airstrikes; to even raids into Libya by land forces. The lack of clarity and definite objective seem a recipe to turn the counter people smuggling effort into an open ended involvement without end. Just considering the mechanics of what the EU proposes seems that the effort will be destined to expand beyond the limited operation that has been suggested.
The EU plan simply put is to target people smugglers and prevent them transporting migrants from Libya to Europe. In theory this is a simple task, however without efforts to prevent the smugglers from putting to sea it relies on stopping the smugglers at sea or from using airstrikes to destroy smugglers vessels before they launch. The EU has actually had the gall to use the “success” of Operation Atalanta- the EU Naval Operation to combat Somali piracy- as an example of how successful the operation could be. Let us just for a second examine Operation Atalanta and the EU efforts to combat Somali pirates.
The majority of Operation Atalanta’s engagements with Somali pirates have been at sea where a virtual “catch and release” policy was in operation. Without clear evidence of piracy, armed Somalis in a boat couldn’t be arrested so if detained they would have their weapons confiscated and be allowed to return to Somalia. On very few occasions Atalanta actually acted in Somalia, conducting a small number of airstrikes on suspected pirate skiffs, a measure that did very little to stop piracy. Indeed piracy continued long after the commanders of Atalanta ceased their airstrikes, deciding that the effort was ineffective.
Now if we look at Libya’s smugglers in a similar manner to Somali pirates the problem isn’t finding boats and coastal communities for airstrikes to target, all along the coast there are boats capable of being used by smugglers, the problem instead is finding the right boats and communities to strike. The EU proposals put forward the idea that they have extensive intelligence on the smugglers and access to the groups. At the present time this is quite possible, though what happens when they strike and the smugglers adapt? Will they then be able to identify who is a smuggler and who is a fisherman?
Of course the solution to the eventual intelligence gap will be to launch raids into Libya, to put troops into the country to locate and find the smugglers. However putting troops into a nation without local support seems certain to escalate trouble and will lead to casualties that the EU lacks the political will to accept.
Beyond the actual effectiveness of military action to stop smugglers, the political dimension is highly complex. EU action is it seems destined to be conducted without the support of Tobruk or Tripoli. Both governments have publicly objected to the EUs plans, though they have also left the door open to partner with the EU to prevent smugglers. In the political battle between Tobruk and Tripoli, the public acceptance and support of the EU would go a long way to reinvigorating either side. Tobruk wants the public support of the EU, figuring the official recognition and support would strengthen its case as the legitimate government and reduce the tacit acceptance of the Tripoli regime. On the other hand the Tripoli regime is pulling out all the stops- including trying to win the moral argument- to gain official EU support and thus acceptance of its role controlling the west of Libya. Thus far the arguments put forward by Tobruk and Tripoli have failed to win public EU support, though evidence of strengthening ties between the EU and Tobruk are apparent. It does though seem somewhat ironic that the EU is happy to consider military action to stop smugglers, yet will not do the same to support a legitimately elected government that has been driven from its capital city and has appealed for assistance.
At the moment there is an impasse. The EU wants to act to stop smugglers and has at least figured out that it needs to do so in Libya, realising that only acting at sea does nothing to prevent smugglers from launching with their human cargoes. However the EU seems to want to have its cake and eat it, it wants to stop smuggling, but wants to stay clear of the chaos in Libya. The unfortunate truth is that without a presence in Libya the operation to prevent smuggling is destined to fail- as the EU has realised- but a presence in Libya requires engagement with the locals. It is fair to say that the EU is pulling out all the stops to pave the way for another intervention in Libya, just this week alone it allowed media sources to invoke the name of everyone’s current favourite bogeyman- the Islamic State- claiming that IS members are now being smuggled to Europe as well, and while the EU did not make the claim, its lack of public denial can be seen as tacit endorsement at least.
So on the horizon we are facing the already complex Libya situation- a 3 sided conflict- becoming even more chaotic with the addition of a 4th side- the EU and unfortunately we will not only not see a solution to the migrant crisis, but will also see the chaos that is Libya become even more complex. It is also worth noting that thus far the migrants have all been from other African nations, as recently reported it seems certain that as the situation in Libya becomes more untenable due to the worsening humanitarian situation we will probably see a wave of Libyans seeking to flee their nation enlisting the services of human smugglers. All told it looks like another long summer of tragedy and chaos is ahead of us with the EU becoming involved in the Libyan crisis without a clear solution in sight.
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)