Opinion: EU defends itself by attacking

Refugees from Libya
Libyan refugees AFP/Scanpix

I suggested that we, Lithuanians, should consider a similar hypothetical situation closer to our own back yard. Imagine that illegal migrants start crossing our border from the east: Belarusians, Ukrainians, Russians, Tajiks, what have you. Our border guards are picking them up in forests and put them into fenced tent camps. The burden of migrants becomes unmanageable and Lithuania turns to the European Union for help.

We start receiving shipments of optic equipment, allowing to spot people hiding in bushes, more tents and canned food. But this does not alleviate the flow of migrants. On the contrary, hearsay about welcoming reception encourages even more illegals to make the crossing. We ask other countries to take some of the load, but they frown at the suggestion and refuse.

The only solution in the situation would be to shore up border control and create a mechanism to separate economic migrants from refugees who flee death, famine, persecution or war.

After this thought experiment, let’s return to the real problem at hand in the Mediterranean. It is obvious that all effort until now – raising funding for refugee camps in the island of Lampedusa or picking up migrant ships in the Mediterranean so they do not drown – was just aggravating the problem, not solving it.

Boat people

The last time the world faced such a massive migrant problem was in 1978-1979. Lithuania was then behind the iron curtain and we knew little beyond that the people of Vietnam, assisted by our great Soviet motherland, defeated American-backed oppressors and liberated South Vietnam. No one told us that communist repression drove some 1.5 million Vietnamese people to flee to neighbouring countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong… Up to 200,000 refugees perished while crossing seas. They were called the boat people.

The refugee problem was addressed internationally and treated as a consequence of the clash between communist regimes and Western democracies. The Soviets did not lift a finger about refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, even though they were directly involved in developments in Indochina.

The Western powers convinced South-East Asian states to provide temporary refuge to the boat people and covered all the related expenses. Recognising its own involvement in the Vietnam war, the United States later accepted the bulk of the refugees, 823,000. France, which had governed Vietnam until 1954, sheltered 96,000 boat people. Many also ended up in Australia and the United Kingdom.

Today’s situation in the Mediterranean remains an EU issue, but the reaction of member states to proposed refugee quotas indicates that the proposal is a faulty one. Moreover, it does not address the issue of people trafficking, only attempts to redistribute the migrants across a bigger territory.

However, the European Commission‘s proposal has already done some good, laying ground to a new plan. Thanks to Wikileaks, we learned on 25 May that solid recommendations had already been prepared and endorsed in high echelons of the EU.

EU’s secret military plan

The EU has been facing a moral dilemma: shall we rescue boat people and thus encourage other potential migrants to attempt the crossing, or watch them drown and warn others not to come? Both answers are inadequate, so a third solution was needed.

Two secret documents published by Wikileaks indicate that the EU decided to tackle the issue head-on. The first document was dated May 11 and addressed by the European External Action Service to the Polical and Security Committee. It begins with stating the purpose of the recommendation: to disrupt the business model of migrant traffickers. According to The Economist, the business generates a turnover of USD 150m. In 2012, 20,000 refugees crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, while last year the number was 219,000 and it keeps growing this year.

The classified memo proposes a year-long Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operation in three phases. CSDP is meant as a recourse for crisis management using civilian and military means.

Phase one, the document suggests, should start right away. It will consist of surveying the traffickers’ operation model, finding out their funding sources, identifying their bases, actors, weighing options to make sure that preventive measures are most successful and least risky. The document also proposes a progress report every three months and a strategic overview in six months.

The memo notes that military action should be carried out with utmost caution, especially near the shores of Libya and on land, so that accidental victims do not unsettle the political situation. Rescue operations would not be publicized so as not to encourage other migrants.

EU member states will have to contribute measures and personnel that will be commanded by the director general of the EU Military Staff. There is also a mention that the EU Military Staff has confirmed that its current structures meet the needs and separately commends Italy’s proposed contribution. Warsaw-based FRONTEX agency will coordinate national border services.

It is yet to be clarified how big and what kind of forces will be required, pending the specification of the territory the operation will cover. It is envisaged that once there is confrontation in the central Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya, traffickers will try to adapt and shift migrant routes to the west and east of the Mediterranean.

The document also envisages cooperation with the United Nations, NATO, Interpol, the Arab League, other organizations and the Libyan government. The problem is that Libya’s ports used by migrant traffickers are under control of Islamist rebels who demand being recognized as the country’s legitimate government in exchange for cooperation.

Military force will be used to take over and neutralize the traffickers’ ships and other assets, rescue hostages, detain suspects.

Approval for operation

The second classified document is dated on May 12. It was sent from the General Secretariat of the EU Council to the same Political and Security Committee. The document indicates that the Politico-Military Group (PMG) has discussed the recommendations from the first document, the Crisis Management Concept, and agreed they were a good basis for further planning of the year-long operation. This does not mean putting off action to an indefinite future – the proposal to launch the operation in late June was not rejected. The PMG recommends to conduct operation in a way that would permit reaching phase three as soon as possible.

Both documents dedicate much attention to the operation’s legal dimension. They commend efforts to secure a mandate for the operation from the UN Security Council. They acknowledge that phases one and two could be started immediately, while parts of phase two and entire phase three would require the Security Council’s endorsement.

The documents discuss the media approach, too. Communication will get its fair share of resources in order not to undermine the EU’s reputation. The main message will be addressed to people in North Africa: the operation is not about rescuing migrants at sea but disrupting the traffickers’ business model.

Since Lithuania is far removed from the African migrant routes, the point of my essay is this: Europe still has teeth. A point that parts of the Lithuanian public have started to doubt. Will the Lithuanian public feel proud or appalled to learn that one of the teeth is their country?

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