BRUSSELS/ROME (Reuters) - Four days after up to 900 desperate people drowned trying to reach Europe from Libya, EU leaders agreed on Thursday to triple its naval search mission in the Mediterranean, restoring its funding to last year’s level.
Critics called it a face-saving operation that did not go far enough to emulate an Italian rescue mission abandoned six months ago for want of EU support. And divisions remained over longer-term proposals, ranging from dealing with people smugglers and African migrant camps to how to redistribute asylum-seekers around 28 nations where anti-immigrant parties are on the rise.
But Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had called for the emergency summit in Brussels after the deadly sinking of a crowded vessel on Sunday pierced many Europeans’ indifference to the fate of unwelcome migrants, called it “a big step forward for Europe”.
Countries, including Britain which will send the Royal Navy’s helicopter-carrying flagship, pledged aircraft and boats to Operation Triton, an EU frontier operation off Italy. Funding for a similar operation off Greece was also to be increased.
Officials said the difference could be felt within days. Italy warned that, after nearly 2,000 deaths so far this year out of nearly 40,000 people making the crossing, a summer season was starting that could push total arrivals on its shores for 2015 to 200,000, an increase of 30,000 over last year.
“We face a difficult summer,” said the summit chairman, European Council President Donald Tusk. He took pains to warn that there would be no quick fix for problems that saw more than 600,000 people seek asylum in the European Union last year.
Tripling annual funding to 120 million euros ($130 million) puts Triton in line with Italy’s Mare Nostrum mission. That rescued 100,000 people last year but was criticized by Germany, Britain and others for attracting more people to put to sea in leaky craft supplied by profiteering gangs of traffickers.
In the face of public outrage, governments have muted those concerns about a “pull factor” and launched what one EU official said was a Mare Nostrum Mark II, ready to roam the high seas - although human rights groups worry its border defense mandate may mean ships stay too far from the trouble spots off Libya.
Among 17 proposals in a summit communique, leaders agreed to “undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers”. It is unclear how that may be achieved and several leaders said they would need a U.N. mandate in the absence of a viable Libyan government.
The group that controls Libya’s coastal capital Tripoli, which is not recognized internationally, said it would “confront” any such EU attacks. And veto-wielding Russia, at daggers drawn with the EU over Ukraine, could block a mandate.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres criticized the focus by leaders on trying to quell Libya people traffickers as they once did Somali pirates: “We are amazed to see that the huge means and resources allocated to declaring war on smugglers are not equally invested in saving lives,” said Aurelie Ponthieu, an MSF humanitarian adviser.
“Focusing on keeping people out by cutting their only existing routes is only going to push people fleeing for their lives to find other routes, potentially even more dangerous.”
Leaders said they would aim for long-term solutions, such as easing poverty and war in the Middle East and Africa, giving people in need a chance to ask for asylum before reaching Europe and opening possible legal routes to migration for some.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country along with Sweden takes in a large proportion of asylum-seekers, called for a change in the EU’s system of managing asylum claims to better distribute the pressures across the bloc.
But few governments are willing to take a greater share and agreements on Thursday were limited. They will consider a voluntary scheme to ease the burden of arrivals on “frontline” states in the south - notably Italy, Greece and Malta. And they plan a pilot project to bring in refugees from abroad and resettle them around the continent, seeking a broad distribution.
An initial draft of the statement had suggested 5,000 people be brought in under this pilot. But there was no figure in the final agreement, reflecting deep hesitation across the Union.
Underlining global attention, the United Nations had criticized the European response so far and urged it to do more: “The European Union response needs to go beyond the present minimalist approach ... which focuses primarily on stemming the arrival of migrants and refugees on its shores.”
EU officials and diplomats said differences among the states meant the legal mandate of Operation Triton would not be changed to make it explicitly intended to search for migrants and rescue them close to the Libyan coast. However, vessel commanders would have freedom to monitor where they wished to bar illegal entry to EU waters - and must under maritime law rescue anyone in trouble.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, seeking to fend off anti-immigration populists as he faces an election just two weeks away, pledged a warship, helicopters and support craft. But he stressed that people picked up would not automatically be given refuge in Britain and would mostly be delivered to Italian authorities to deal with.
Even as the leaders gathered, the Italian coast guard picked up 84 men, all apparently sub-Saharan Africans, from a sinking rubber boat 35 miles off Libya after receiving a distress call.
There were just 28 survivors from Sunday’s disaster, apparently the worst among migrants fleeing by sea to Europe from north Africa.
An interfaith funeral was held in Malta for 24 victims, the only ones whose bodies have been recovered so far from a ship in which many are believed to have been locked in below deck.
Imam Mohammed El Sadi said what had happened should raise awareness of the migrants’ plight, while Bishop Mario Grech called for action motivated by love, rather than just the law.
Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis, Paul Taylor, Adrian Croft, Jan Strupczweski, Philip Blenkinsop, Robert-Jan Bartunek, Foo Yun Chee, Julia Fioretti and Francesco Guarascio in Brussels, Isla Binnie in Rome and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Giles Elgood and Frances Kerry