BRUSSELS — Late to the rescue, European leaders came through Thursday with pledges of big ships, aircraft and a tripling in funds to save lives in the Mediterranean after the deaths at sea of more than 1,300 migrants over the past three weeks, and agreed to lay the groundwork for military action against traffickers.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country has been faced with almost daily tragedy as rescuers plucked bodies from frigid waters, called it “a giant step forward.”
Within days, Britain’s aptly named HMS Bulwark and the German supply ship Berlin could be steaming to the heart of the Mediterranean in the biggest sign of the European Union’s belated commitment to contain the tide of rickety ships making the perilous crossing.
The pledge of resources came as victims of the worst-ever migrant disaster in the Mediterranean were buried Thursday in Malta. Two dozen wooden caskets containing the only bodies recovered from a weekend capsizing off Libya that left at least 800 migrants feared dead were laid out for a memorial service.
None of the bodies was identified: One casket had “No. 132” scrawled on it, referring to the number of the DNA sample taken from the corpse in case a relative ever comes to claim it.
For several years as death tolls have mounted, EU leaders have done little more than deplore the loss of lives and mark tragedies with moments of silence and wreaths instead of fundamental action. When Libya disintegrated politically after the overthrow of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi and unrest spread in neighboring countries, Europe failed to take forceful action.
On Thursday, EU leaders pledged to do more, committing at least nine vessels to monitor the waters for traffickers and intervene in case of need. Other member states, from France to Latvia, also lined up more ships, planes and helicopters that could be used to rescue migrants.
The member states agreed to triple funding to 9 million euros ($9.7 million) a month for the EU’s border operation that patrols the Mediterranean.
They also assigned EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to line up the diplomatic options that would allow EU militaries to strike against the boats used by traffickers. Officials said the lack of a strong Libyan government would likely make U.N. backing necessary.
“Leaders have already pledged significantly greater support, including many more vessels, aircraft and experts” than had been anticipated before the summit, EU President Donald Tusk said.
Despite the sudden deluge of goodwill, huge questions remained about whether it would be enough to defeat the smugglers and human traffickers.
“Right now, it’s a question of fixing yesterday’s errors,” French President Francois Hollande said.
He said the EU would hold a summit in Malta with African countries by this summer to see how the continents can work together to better deal with a crisis that has grown dramatically in recent years.
In contrast to the Italian premier, the head of another Mediterranean nation on the frontline of the tragedies was far less enthusiastic.
For tiny Malta, the smallest EU member state with a population of 450,000, the summit produced nothing particularly new, apart from a fresh resolve to break up the smuggling networks.
The assets being proposed “will never be enough,” Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat said. “It is definitely not enough if the numbers that are being communicated about prospective migratory flows are anything to go by.”
Over the past week alone, more than 10,000 people have been plucked from the high seas between Italy and Libya as desperate migrants fleeing war, repression and poverty threw their lot in with smugglers who charged $1,000 to $2,000 for a spot on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats to make the perilous crossing.
At least 1,300 people have died in April alone, putting 2015 on track to be the deadliest year ever.
Ending that is Europe’s main challenge. Even optimists say any measures agreed at Thursday’s summit would not fully stem the tide of unstable ships crossing the Mediterranean.
But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte insisted that Europe should not take the brunt of blame. “We also ask that Africa, the source of the problem, also collectively takes up its responsibility,” Rutte said. “Last time I checked Libya was in Africa, not Europe.”
Over the past year, what little political structure Libya had has collapsed. There are two rival governments, neither with any real authority, and each fighting the other on the ground. Local militias hold sway around the country, some of them with hard-line Islamist ideologies, and the Islamic State group has emerged as a strong and brutal force.
The makes any military action against traffickers there even more complicated.
“Any kind of military action can only be based on international law,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “There are two possibilities: either a U.N. Security Council Resolution or a unity government in Libya. We have neither at the moment.”
Europe itself was hardly a picture of unity when it came to the difficult issue of resettling migrants.
Countries like Germany, Sweden, France and Italy have dealt with a disproportionate number of asylum requests while many eastern and Baltic member states take hardly any. Five of the 28 member states are handling almost 70 percent of the migrants coming in.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, two weeks away from a national election in which immigration is a major issue, said Britain was not planning to take more in migrants that had no reason to come to the U.K. British vessels would take migrants “to the nearest safe country, mostly likely Italy,” he said.
Still, despite the differences, Finland’s prime minister Alexander Stubb was hopeful that this time Europe could put up a show of solidarity.
“I hope we’ll get it right this time,” he said.
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