BRUSSELS — EU member states approved plans Friday to launch as early as next week the first phase of a military operation against people smugglers in the Mediterranean, sources said.
"Everything is now in place so that EU foreign ministers meeting Monday can approve the launch of the mission," one EU diplomat told AFP.
Other sources said member states have committed to supply enough ships and aircraft to allow the first, intelligence-gathering, phase of the operation to go ahead.
Stung into action by the loss of an estimated 800 migrants when their rickety boat sank off southern Italy, EU leaders agreed at an emergency summit in April to formulate a comprehensive plan to tackle the problem at source.
As well as boosting search and rescue efforts, they called on EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini to draw up military options against the ruthless traffickers exploiting the waves of humanity seeking to get to Europe across the Mediterranean.
The first phase of intelligence gathering is meant to be followed by active intervention to board and disable smuggler vessels and arrest the traffickers.
A third phase would extend these actions into Libyan territorial waters and possibly inside the country itself.
While some EU states such as Britain and France favor moving promptly to Phase 2 and 3, others have serious reservations about direct involvement in a chaotic Libya where rival factions are fighting for control and the internationally-recognized government has fled Tripoli to take up residence in Benghazi.
To meet these reservations, the EU April summit agreed that Phase 2 and 3 would only go ahead if the bloc obtained Libyan consent — a difficult prospect — and a UN Security Council resolution.
Russia, one of the five UNSC permanent members, and others "want a clear Libyan consent; we are still working on it," said a senior EU official who asked not to be named.
"We are rather optimistic that in the end there will be a UNSC resolution to go on with the other phases; there is no absolute certitude but there is a very good prospect," the official said.
Opposition to sharing burden
Some 100,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, most of them landing in Italy, Greece and Malta which all want their EU peers to share more of the burden.
The European Commission has proposed that 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean asylum-seekers who have arrived in Europe should be redistributed and that 20,000 Syrians living in camps outside Europe should be resettled across the 28-nation bloc.
Many member states are prepared to contribute to the humanitarian efforts of search and rescue but are less forthcoming when it comes to taking in more migrants or backing the military option.
Migration is a hugely sensitive issue and far-right and eurosceptic parties have capitalized on public concerns about a massive influx of refugees to make considerable inroads at the expense of established parties.
Earlier this week, EU ministers could not reach agreement on the Commission proposals.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Wednesday that member states remained "far from consensus" on how to distribute refugees between them.
"These are difficult discussions we're having at the moment and all my conversations with European colleagues show that we remain far from consensus and that a lot persuasion will still be necessary," he said.
"In our view, the best way is mandatory quotas for the European member states."
Germany last year took in 200,000 asylum seekers and expects as many as 450,000 this year.