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Is There a Military Solution to Europe’s Migrant Crisis? Spoiler Alert: Probably Not.

470787708cropForeign Policy


The threat from Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti sounded imminent and ominous:

“We know where the smugglers keep their boats, where they gather,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “The plans for military intervention are there.”

But just what those plans will look like is not so clear, despite Pinotti’s confident tone.

EU leaders gathered in Brussels Thursday as part of a series of emergency summits in the wake of the shipwreck over the weekend that killed hundreds seeking to reach the continent. In the days since the wreck, which may have left as many as 900 dead, the continent’s politicians have opted to focus on smugglers: the people operating the networks and vessels that charge desperate migrants exorbitant fees for dangerous passage, and who have emerged as an easy target for those looking to take quick action. Prominent voices, among them Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, have begun calling for the use of military force against the traffickers.

European naval forces have in recent years stepped up their efforts to patrol the Mediterranean and interdict boats laden with migrants. After the 2013 sinking of a migrant vessel off the coast of Lampedusa, the Italian navy launched an ambitious mission called Mare Nostrum, or Our Sea, aimed to carrying out search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. But that operation was replaced by a smaller EU mission, Triton, with a scaled back budget and a mandate focused on security and border control.

That mission manifestly failed to prevent this weekend’s disaster, and European leaders are now under pressure to come up with a way to prevent additional mass drownings. As the German paper Die Zeitdescribed the European political environment, the motivations aren’t exactly humanitarian: “We don’t want migrants to drown. We don’t want them over here. So what do we want to do?” Unable to quickly repair the broken societies from which many of the migrants hail, European leaders have latched on to a military solution as a quick fix to a problem they’d very much like to go away.

But there have been few details on just what such an intervention might look like, and already, many have voiced skepticism about the sensibility of a military solution. The 10-point plan of action that formed the basis of Thursday’s talks is heavy on possible law enforcement and military efforts to stem the flow of migrants.

So might European forces be able to destroy smugglers’ ships? “The only way to stop them is to destroy all the boats in Libya, which is obviously nonsensical,” Alain Coldefy, a retired French admiral told the Telegraph.

Is There a Military Solution to Europe’s Migrant Crisis? Spoiler Alert: Probably Not.

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