WHEN the European Union’s foreign and defence ministers vowed, on May 18th, to deploy their navies against north African people-smugglers, they clearly meant to sound firm and decisive. But in reality, this is a risky effort to satisfy conflicting political imperatives: voters want to banish from their screens the disturbing images of drowned migrants washing up on beaches, but without having to accept too many newcomers.
The operation is likely to be formally launched after the European Union summit on June 25th, under an Italian admiral in Rome. As a first step to stopping the smugglers’ dirty work, there will be an intelligence-gathering operation, with Britain offering drones. Then naval ships deployed by EUNAVFOR Med, as the mission has been dubbed, will intercept and board what are deemed to be “hostile” vessels, preferably before they have left Libyan waters. The boats will be seized and destroyed, with passengers sent back to their point of embarkation. A further phase could include the destruction of smugglers’ boats on land or in harbour by helicopter gunships. NATO has also offered its help if requested.