The United States said on Monday (25 April) that it would back a NATO naval operation off the coast of Libya to support the EU’s plan to close the Western Mediterranean refugee route to Europe. Matteo Renzi, the Prime Minister of Italy – a country that is the main initiator of the efforts to close the route – confirmed after meeting with the US President and the leaders of Britain, France and Germany in Hannover, Germany, that “Barack Obama … was willing to commit NATO assets to block the traffic in human beings and the people smugglers that we refer to as modern slavers”.
The talks that took place on the sidelines of the Hannover Messe 2016, the world’s biggest exhibit of industrial technologies, touched on the refugee crisis and the accompanying instability and Islamist infiltration in Libya from where 350,000 people have crossed the sea to get to Italy since January 2014. Italian Minister of Defense, Roberta Pinotti, confirmed that the preparations for a naval blockade had already been advanced, with a NATO’s approval expected in July when leaders meet in Warsaw. US officials confirmed that the White House was fully supportive of the operation. The naval operation has been criticized by refugee and human rights groups backed by Pope Francis for making an arbitrary distinction between asylum seekers and economic migrants.
Germany has confirmed that it was also supportive of the operation but said it would prefer to see it under the EU rather than NATO command. “Through the NATO mission in the Aegean Sea, the US has shown its willingness to take part in combating illegal immigration here,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Hannover. “The US is fully engaged and ready, in connection with the migration route from Libya to Italy, to share responsibility if necessary” she added but also stressed that “we now have a European mission, EUNAVFOR, also called Sophia, which is working quite well.”