BRUSSELS — The European Union has launched a new operation in the southern Mediterranean to intercept boats smuggling migrants.
The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini described the operation as part of a "comprehensive approach" to migration.
The EU started the first phase of its operation, called EUNavforMed, in June, using naval surveillance to detect smugglers' boats and monitor smuggling patterns from Libya towards Italy and Malta. Until now, the EU has focused on surveillance and rescue operations but under the new phase, called "Operation Sophia," naval vessels will be able to board, search, seize and divert vessels suspected of being used for people smuggling.
Operation Sophia is so called after a baby born on an EU ship that rescued her mother off the coast of Libya in August.
The operation's commander, Rear Adm. Enrico Credendino, will oversee several EU warships in the Mediterranean, including the British frigate HMS Richmond, an Italian aircraft carrier, a French frigate, one Spanish and two German ships.
At least three other vessels supplied by the Belgian and Slovenian navies are expected to arrive in the area at the end of October to complete the force, which also includes four aircraft and 1,318 personnel.
The operation will patrol over 10 areas off the Libyan coast: four along the 12-nautical-mile mark, which separates international from Libyan waters, and the others farther out to sea.
As part of the operation, the British ship Enterprise docked in the Italian port of Catania on Tuesday with more than 600 rescued Eritrean refugees on board.
Credendin's deputy, Rear Adm. Herve Blejean, said six ships were being used "to start to dismantle this business model by trying to apprehend some suspected smugglers."
Blejean said more vessels would soon join the operation, staffed with professionals who were ready to "deal with any threats or resistance they might encounter."
The EU eventually hopes to move to a third, more aggressive phase by operating within Libya's own territorial waters. But this will only be possible with the approval of either the UN Security Council or Libya itself, a prospect generally deemed as unlikely.
However, doubts about the effectiveness of the new phase of EUNavforMed have been voiced in some quarters, including by migration expert Eugenio Ambrosi who said that the EU operation in the Mediterranean will fail unless the bloc also fights criminal gangs in Europe.
Ambrosi, of the International Organization for Migration, said the "transnational criminal rings of traffickers are the same as those involved in weapons and drugs.
"The boats are not the reason for the smuggling," he said, adding that if efforts are just focused on the boats, "the nucleus of the criminals remains untouched."
Further reservations were voiced by British MEP Mike Hookem, defense spokesman for the UK Independence Party, who said, "The EU is slowly but surely trying to move from the principle of a nation state providing national security, to a more centralized model controlled and commanded from Brussels."
Speaking from Strasbourg where he has criticized the EU's handling of Libya and Turkey, he said, "The EU is using the current migrant crisis as nothing more than an opportunistic excuse for the creation of an EU-wide army, navy and air force."
So far this year, more than 130,000 migrants and refugees have crossed to Europe from the North African coast. More than 2,700 have drowned.
However, many more migrants and refugees, mainly Syrians fleeing the country's civil war, are taking a different route. They are crossing overland into Turkey, before a short journey by sea to European Union member Greece and on to central and northern European countries, with Germany the preferred destination.
The migrant crisis is one of the issues being raised by French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a rare joint address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.