Government advisers and a former ambassador to Libya have struck out at European Union plans to deploy military force against Mediterranean people traffickers, with one calling the plan “moronic and delusional.”
An independent evaluation document, seen by Newsweek and understood to have been circulated amongst European Union officials and military planners, also warns the planned expedition carries “a significant risk of collateral damage,” and that it would have “limited impact” on trafficking operations. The document foresees an increased risk of kidnappings in Libya, of European citizens, if the plan goes ahead.
The warnings come as the EU recently voted to establish EUNAVFOR MED, a new naval organisation based in Rome with a remit to aggressively “disrupt the business model” of people traffickers operating along the Libyan coast.
“Libya is just the worst possible environment to carry out a foreign policing operation,” Oliver Miles, who previously served as Britain’s ambassador to Libya, told Newsweek.
Miles said he feared that a host of independent and semi-independent militias, extremist Islamist militants and two factions competing for government authority would complicate the operation beyond repair.
While most of the trafficking boats are based in west Libya, the government there is not recongised internationally.
“It’s the equivalent of bombing pick-up trucks in Mexico to stop Mexicans coming to California,” says Jason Pack, a defence and security adviser to the UK Foreign Office, and a specialist consultant on Libya, calling the EU plan “moronic and delusional.”
Pack, who regularly provides detailed briefings to the Foreign Office and senior British politicians, including on the current crisis – says the traffickers boats would be easily confused with fishing boats, and said it was likely traffickers would turn to even more brutal tactics to ensure their business can continue.
“It’s not inconceivable that they would literally start tying people to the deck to stop the EU military attacking their boats.”
Pack also warned that normal maritime traffic including food imports to Libya, which is devastated by an ongoing civil war, would be disrupted.
“Libyan harbours have enough problems getting in grain, rice and medicine let alone with EU forces blockading the port.”
Both Miles and Pack believe the EU plan is being driven by domestic politics rather than strategic thinking. Pack pointed to the rise of far-right parties across Europe, particularly in France and Italy, and believes the move is designed to appease them.
In last year’s European elections, France’s anti-immigration Front National came out top in the polls – the party’s first victory in a national election. Polls for the 2017 presidential election have seen the party’s former leader Marine Le Pen soar to ratings as high as 43%.
Le Pen has been outspoken on the issue of migrants in the Mediterranean – saying they should all be be sent back to their port of departure. Le Pen also clashed with Nicholas Sarkozy on Twitter, saying he had “ignited a fire in the region,” referring to his previous intervention into Libya which Front National strongly opposed.
Lega Nord in Italy, who say only non-Muslim immigration to Europe should be allowed, are now ranked the third most popular party in Italy. They have previously said that boats carrying migrants should be allowed to sink.
In the UK, the UK Independence Party, which is formally tied to Lega Nord via a European Parliament coalition, has called for “a few thousand” Christian refugees to be accepted but all others returned. While Ukip suffered a heavy defeat in the general election, they are the largest UK party in the European Parliament.
Miles attributes the rushed deployment to a”something-must-be-done” attitude from the British government, saying the result is a “half-baked” plan which has little chance of success.
“The people traffickers will most likely just find somewhere else to operate from,” Miles added, saying that Libya is just the final stage of a vast refugee problem which stretches across the African continent and the Middle East. “These are people coming from countries like Syria and Eritrea; they are completely desperate. We need to find space for them in Europe.”
Earlier this week, an internal EU blueprint for the anti-trafficking operation, seen by EU Observer, suggested that “a presence ashore” was being considered, including deployment of special forces. That document also warned of “a high risk of collateral damage including the loss of life.”
Wolfgang Pusztai, a security analyst and former Austrian defence attache to Libya, said that while the likelihood of the operation reducing the number of migrants was low, the presence of warships could still deter maritime terrorism or piracy.
Pusztai also told Newsweek: “It may be useful for the European Union to have a military force in theatre to enforce an eventual ceasefire in Libya, but for the time being we can only expect very limited success from the current operation.”
Last Monday, the European Union Council voted to establish EUNAVFOR MED, a new naval expeditionary force headquartered in Rome. Although formal approval to actually deploy military force to Libya is still pending, European Union officials have made it clear that the new force has been established “to disrupt the business model” of traffickers, using military means, including sinking of boats, and destruction of fuel and loading facilities along the Libyan coast. The plan is especially favoured by Germany, Sweden, Italy and France.
Other countries have expressed doubts. Initially, the UK was due to take the lead on the operation, but secretary of defence Michael Fallon scaled back this promise last week, and British representation will now be limited to intelligence-gathering drones. Ministry of Defence officials also told The Guardian that they would now need “more information” about the planned expedition before fully committing.
Likewise Dutch Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis has said that the plan “requires careful consideration in the coming months.”
The expedition also still requires United Nations approval, with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov already threatening to veto the resolution. Alluding to the Russian stance that the 2011 Western operation in Libya amounted to a “regime change” rather than humanitarian operation, he told reporters on Tuesday
“Given the previous experience with such requests to the UN Security Council, we intend to scrutinise all the nuances of a potential future situation like this to avoid any ambiguity in the mandate given by the UN Security Council to the European Union.”
The establishment of EUNAVFOR MED has also been welcomed by the largest shipping association in Europe, the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO), who have complained that their members smaller trading vessels are frequently having to rescue drowning migrants, and that employees on their ships are at risk of terrorist attack. A statement published on their website said they “strongly welcomed” the possibility of a military operation in Libya.
Gerry Simpson, Senior Research and Advocate on Human Rights Watch’s Refugee programme, told Newsweek: “Any European policing operation has to conform to international human rights law, in particular the European Convention on Human Rights. Civilians near the boats, asylum seekers and migrants must not be harmed in anyway.”
Speaking to Catherine Ray, European Union lead spokesperson on foreign and security policy, Newsweek learned that their expectation was to have “zero civilian casualties” but that the operational planning was still at an early stage.
When asked about the leaked planning document suggesting “a significant risk of collateral damage,”, Ray declined to respond directly but provided a general statement.
“The Council has agreed to establish an EU military operation to break the business model of smugglers and traffickers of people in the Mediterranean. This decision is one element of the comprehensive EU response to the migration challenge.”
The launch of the EU naval operation will be on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council in June.