WikiLeaks has released two classified EU documents, outlining the planned military intervention against boats travelling from Libya to Italy. The more significant of the two documents was written by the combined military defence chiefs of the EU member states. The plan was formally approved by representatives from all 28 countries on 18 May 2015.
Importantly, one of the documents acknowledges that “the political End State [of the military intervention] is not clearly defined” and recommends that the European Commission issue further guidance.
The documents lay out a military operation against cross-Mediterranean refugee transport networks and infrastructure. It details plans to conduct military operations to destroy boats used for transporting migrants and refugees in Libyan territory, thereby preventing them from reaching Europe. The EU member states’ military chiefs advice is that there is a need to:
“[draw] on the full range of surveillance, intelligence and information capabilities available to MS [member states] and Partners, and supported by Brussels (inter alia EEAS [European External Action Service] Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity – SIAC)”.
The plan also acknowledges the possibility of EU military use of force against groups such as ISIL “within the Libyan sovereign area”:
“the threat to the force should be acknowledged, especially during activities such as boarding and when operating on land or in proximity to an unsecured coastline, or during interaction with non-seaworthy vessels. The potential presence of hostile forces, extremists or terrorists such as Da’esh [ISIL] should also be taken into consideration”.
The documents mark a departure from previous EU military strategy in its overt targeting of civilian infrastructure in Libya. Numerous EU countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom participated in NATO-led air strikes on Libya in 2011.
Human rights organisations have called on the EU not to put the lives of refugees and migrants at risk. The plan acknowledges that the EU risks negative publicity “should loss of life be attributed, correctly or incorrectly, to action or inaction by the EU force”. To manage this reputational risk, the documents recommend “an EU information strategy from the outset” in order to “facilitate expectation management”. They also acknowledge the “need to calibrate military activity” particularly within Libyan waters or ashore “in order to avoid destabilising the political process by causing collateral damage, disrupting legitimate economic activity or creating a perception of having chosen sides”.
Boats transporting people from Libya are the main means for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa to reach safety in Europe. Since the destruction of the Libyan government in 2011 there has been a sharp increase in the numbers of refugees travelling to Europe from Libya. In 2014 more than 170,000 people are estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya. In 2014, this made up 60 per cent of the entire irregular migration into the EU.