BRUSSELS The European Union are expected to consider moving security personnel into Libya to help to stabilize the chaotic country if requested by a new United Nations-backed Libyan government, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters.
Impetus for the move comes in part from fears of an uncontrolled new tide of migrants into Italy from Libya unless law and order can be rebuilt soon in the North African state.
EU foreign and defense ministers will hold a special dinner in Luxembourg on Monday, when they are expected to agree to look into police and border training missions for Libya. Any such support would initially be in Tripoli, where the new government is trying to establish itself.
"The EU stands ready to offer security sector support in response to possible (U.N.) Government of National Accord requests," according to a draft statement prepared by diplomats, though the text is still under discussion.
"A possible civilian ... mission could support Libyan efforts ... through advice and capacity building in the fields of police and criminal justice," the draft said, referring to counter-terrorism, border management and the tackling of the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Italy, which has been clamoring for coordinated action on migration, wrote to the heads of the EU Council and European Commission underlining the urgency of the situation.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government proposed a "constant European law enforcement presence in the Saharan belt" and expanding sea missions to disrupt trafficking and train the Libyan Coast Guard.
An EU security presence in Libya, which would not involve soldiers, would be Europe's biggest step in the oil-producing nation since a NATO-backed mission led to the fall of Libya's long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Diplomats said there had yet to be a detailed discussion with the new U.N.-brokered Libyan government in defining what kind of assistance they wanted from the EU, and that it is keen to avoid the impression of moving into the country uninvited.
"It is a delicate balance," said one senior EU official involved in the plans. "We need to prepare to help Libya, but we cannot jump the gun."
Libyan officials with the new unity government were not immediately available for comment on the specific document, but they have said that any international security cooperation must be Libyan-led and so far have made no detailed request for aid.
However, such a request would be a sensitive subject for the new government, which opponents accuse of being a foreign-imposed body with no legitimacy.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Seraj will speak to ministers by video conference at the dinner on Monday.
Talks on a possible EU security mission could give momentum to discussions among Italian, French, British and U.S. military planners on whether to send troops to Libya to help to protect key installations, government buildings, ports and the airport.
The United States is eager to see Europe, not Washington, take the lead in a region on the continent's doorstep.
The separate mission, which includes France, Italy, Britain and the United States and is known as the Libya International Assistance Mission, has already briefed EU diplomats about how it could have a military role in stabilizing Libya. It may set up a secretariat based in Rome.
Also under consideration is how the EU's so-called "Sophia" naval mission operating in international waters near Libya could move into Libyan waters to destroy boats used by people smugglers, catch the traffickers and head off an expected surge in migrants trying to reach Europe by sea from Libya.
While the naval mission has been operating since mid-2015 and has saved more than 8,000 lives, it is unable to move into Libyan waters without a request from the Libyan government and a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The problem has been finding an effective governing authority in Libya to deal with. Libya has been in anarchy for years, with two competing governments based in Tripoli and the far east and a plethora of militias dominating various regions.
The new U.N.-backed unity government has yet to establish its authority in Tripoli, let alone the vast country at large.
Previous training efforts ran into difficulties in 2012 and 2013 when Italy and Turkey started training police and, along with Britain and the United States, planned to build a force of 8,000 troops. Those programs were hampered by militia infighting and political squabbling among Libyan factions.
Renzi told reporters in Rome that the new U.N.-backed government in Tripoli would help to reduce the boatloads of migrants who dice with death to reach Europe from Africa.
"It's fundamental that Libya has a government ... Now we can work with an executive that isn't at the height of its powers, but it exists," Renzi said.
"In light of the fact that there is now a Libyan government, we will try to get the EU to invest in Africa to put a stop to the death journeys (on overcrowded boats) so we can have a decisively lower and more controlled migrant flow."
In his letter, Renzi proposed that the EU share the cost of repatriations, screening of migrants and other logistical support for countries on migration routes. He suggested member states issue common bonds and provide new funds for African and other transit countries.
He said a controversial deal whereby the EU will reward Ankara for taking back some migrants who pass through Turkey "should not remain an isolated event".
EU ministers will also discuss whether the Sophia naval mission can work more closely with NATO's naval contingent in the Aegean, which aims to help Greek and Turkish coastguards tackle people smuggling and stem the record flows of migrants into the EU via Greece from nearby Turkey.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey in Algiers and Steve Scherer in Rome; Editing by Francesco Guarascio, Mark Heinrich and David Goodman)