The independent resource on global security

17 June 2015: Migrant smuggling: moving beyond an EU military response

A European agenda on migration has been elaborated together with a number of more specific documents, including an ambitious and seemingly comprehensive action plan against migrant smuggling. The Commission action plan is one of the first to really seek to combine internal and external action of the Union, and endeavours to develop cooperation with a number of international stakeholders, as well as with member states of the Union.

However, a checklist of key issues to consider when discussing EU and security gives rise to a number of matters of concern.  In sum there is at present little publicly available evidence of serious engagement on the part of the EU external action service, beyond setting up a military force to interdict smugglers. The High Representative is saying the right things: that it is important to attack root causes, but does her service have the capacity and a strategic plan to deliver on that promise?

The strategic planning of external action lagging behind

The external action of the EU appears to be an underdeveloped strategic endeavour in comparison to EU internal policies.  In particular, the EU lacks an updated security strategy. The last one, portraying a rather rosy picture of the European security situation, is more than a decade old.  The political responsibility for fending off widespread calls for a more ambitious strategic approach to external action rests with the previous High Representative supported by several of the major member states.  There may be a high price to be paid for this as illustrated by the migrant smuggling emergency.

Migrant smuggling – the need for a truly comprehensive response focussing on conflict prevention and poverty reduction

In recent weeks, several contributors to the public debate have critically analysed the EU proposal to tackle migrant smuggling. Statewatch, for example, working partly on the basis of leaked documents from the EU, including its military committee, argues that there is disquiet within EU military structures.  Military representatives are reported to have expressed concern about a lack of end-state analysis in the current plans by foreign and defence ministers to deploy a military operation in the Mediterranean to help deal with the migrant smuggling problem. Amnesty International has joined the discussion raising questions about the wider consequences of promoting a military solution to what is a predominantly humanitarian problem.

Has sufficient effort been deployed to integrate the military approach into a comprehensive approach that includes conflict prevention and poverty reduction? So far the answer seems to be no. The focus in the EU political and security committee in the last month seems to have been on establishing this military mission, with little thought given to the wider context.

The migrant smuggling proposal – avoiding unwanted side effects of the military operation

Within the European security agenda (namely, the internal security strategy of the EU), political leaders have recently pointed to the need for an external strategic review in order to deal not least with issues of radicalisation, in part driven by the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in the early part of 2015. By now, it should be fully obvious that the way military and associated police operations were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan led to serious radicalisation effects, including an expansion of the Islamic State.

Foreign and defence ministers need to ask themselves to what extent a militarised European response to the migration crisis will contribute to further radicalisation, as may also have been the case with the anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa.

In the frantic effort to develop policies to the migration problem and placate domestic political concerns (both those advocating for more compassion as well as voices for strengthening ‘Fortress Europe’), political leaders risk losing sight of possible serious side-effects from the linkages between migrant smuggling and radicalisation.

Radicalisation is an important theme in several of the major joint communications put forward by the Commission and the High Representative in the last year. But this priority has yet to be established in an overall external strategy of the Union – and appears not to have been given due weight in the initial policy responses to the migration crisis.

The migrant smuggling dilemma provides a dramatic illustration of the need for a more strategic discourse on EU external action, which is now finally underway under the auspices of the current High Representative and Vice President of the Commission Federica Mogherini.  It may be that the member states will be unable to agree to a new foreign and security strategy in the current difficult economic and political context, not least given the potential GREXIT (Greece) and BREXIT (British) from the EU. But the current migration crisis is important enough to set the strategic debate in motion. 

Dr Lars-Erik Lundin (Sweden) is a Distinguished Associate Fellow and heads SIPRI's research on the EU's comprehensive approach to external conflicts and crises. He is a former EU Ambassador to the international organizations in Vienna and the author of the recent handbook on EU and security.


Dr Lars-Erik Lundin is a Distinguished Associate Fellow within the European Security Programme.