An important change has taken place in the European response to the exodus of African migrants and refugees. European naval forces are planning to attack people-smugglers inside Libyan territorial waters.

This decision was revealed by Sandro Gozi, Italy’s European Affairs Minister.

Mr Gozi told the BBC that the EU naval force will “soon” be able to “stop the trafficking in Libyan territorial seas.” He said the decision will be taken at an EU summit due to be held at the end of June.

This would – Mr Gozi said – be accompanied by two further measures:

  • EU training for Libyan security forces
  • New European investment in Africa

The idea of European investment in North Africa has been floated before, with suggestions that the EU will back an initiative to provide  €60 billion, mostly raised from private sources but with an EU contribution of around €4.5 billion.

Why is this important?

There is already United Nations backing for naval forces to intercept boats in international waters. UN Security Council resolution 2240  of 9 October 2015 allowed for international navies to ‘inspect’ and ‘seize’ vessels involved in human trafficking – but only on the high seas.

The UN approved action inside Libyan coastal waters, but only in the context of cooperating with the Libyan Government.

When this resolution was passed last year no such government was in place. But in March 2016 a ‘National Salvation’ government backed by the UN arrived in Tripoli. The new government only operates from a heavily guarded naval base, but this has not prevented the international community from recognising it.

With the ‘permission’ of this government the EU and NATO could operate inside Libyan territorial waters. This would allow navies to destroy the boats and other facilities operated by the people smugglers without putting at risk any refugees or migrants who are already at sea.

This is an objective that has been at the top of the wish-list of European politicians.

The British government has already deployed a warship to the area. Now all that is needed is a formal request from the Libyan government for the operation to begin.

A British government spokesman told that Guardian newspaper that David Cameron had told the G7 summit in Japan of his plans:

He argued that it was a global challenge that required a comprehensive solution, and reiterated his desire to work with the Libyan government to help them build the capacity of their coastguard. The aim would be to help them “intercept boats off the coast, both those carrying migrants and those carrying arms”.

“We will now take an active leadership role in that process. Four military planners have deployed to Rome this week to the HQ of Operation Sophia, the naval mission in the Med, where they will work with other EU colleagues to agree a plan going forward for the Libyan coastguard,” he said.

“Once that is established we will then send a training team to assist the Libyan authorities in improving their coastguard maritime operations. Then, once the relevant UN security resolutions are in place, we intend to deploy a navy warship to the region to assist in the interception of arms and human smuggling.”

The Guardian says a further UN resolution will be required. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, said an operational plan would be put forward “in the coming days”, suggesting that UN agreement is likely.

Excerpts of UN Security Council resolution 2240 of 9 October 2015

  1. Urges Member States and regional organisations, in the spirit of international solidarity and shared responsibility, to cooperate with the Libyan Government, and with each other, including by sharing information about acts of migrant smuggling and human trafficking in Libya’s territorial sea and on the high seas off the coast of Libya, and rendering assistance to migrants and victims of human trafficking recovered at sea, in accordance with international law;
  1. Decides, with a view to saving the threatened lives of migrants or of victims of human trafficking on board such vessels as mentioned above, to authorise, in these exceptional and specific circumstances, for a period of one year from the date of the adoption of this resolution, Member States, acting nationally or through regional organisations that are engaged in the fight against migrant smuggling and human trafficking, to inspect on the high seas off the coast of Libya vessels that they have reasonable grounds to suspect are being used for migrant smuggling or human trafficking from Libya, provided that such Member States and regional organisations make good faith efforts to obtain the consent of the vessel’s flag State prior to using the authority outlined in this paragraph;
  1. Decides to authorise for a period of one year from the date of the adoption of this resolution, Member States acting nationally or through regional organisations to seize vessels inspected under the authority of paragraph 7 that are confirmed as being used for migrant smuggling or human trafficking from Libya, and underscores that further action with regard to such vessels inspected under the authority of paragraph 7, including disposal, will be taken in accordance with applicable international law with due consideration of the interests of any third parties who have acted in good faith;