BRUSSELS — A European Union naval operation to go after the trafficking networks that send thousands of migrants across the Mediterranean into Europe could be launched in the coming weeks with NATO ready to help out if needed, officials said Monday.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said she expects a meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers to agree to establish the operation. Once that is done, it will have to find the ships and equipment and work out a proper military plan before action can be taken.
Officials added that some parts of the plan could be enforced independently but that the destruction of boats would need U.N. approval.
The 28-country EU has been under increasing pressure to take action to clamp down on the trafficking networks that's seen thousands die in the waters of the Mediterranean over the past few years.
More than 10,000 people have been picked up alive from the central Mediterranean in recent weeks as they attempted to enter Europe from Libya. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 1,830 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean this year compared to 207 in the same period last year.
Mogherini said EU nations "can move forward with the planning and possibly launch the operation in the coming weeks" once Monday's decision is taken. Those weeks coincide with the high season for migrant crossings.
Though NATO has not yet been approached for help, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the Western military alliance stands "ready to help if there is a request."
Stoltenberg said the alliance, 22 of whose member states also belong to the EU, is also ready to help Libya's government with defense-capacity building "when the situation on the ground allows for that kind of cooperation." He added that he strongly welcomes U.N. efforts to forge a government of national unity and achieve a cease-fire.
Underscoring the need for action on the traffickers, Stoltenberg said "one of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists, also trying to hide, to blend in" on the vessels trying to cross over into Europe.
The EU is looking for U.N. backing to make its naval operation as comprehensive as possible, especially since any backing from a Libyan government with limited authority on the ground could raise questions, even among EU nations.
The EU's Mogherini also said a decision to get a naval operation off the ground on Monday would increase the EU's political clout at UN headquarters.
Officials and ministers said there is general agreement on the first phase of the plan, which centers on intelligence gathering and surveillance of smuggling routes leading to the south of Italy and Malta. Officials will also set out to contact government and UN officials in Libya as soon as possible.
The operation becomes trickier as soon as the boarding and seizure of smuggled vessels in international waters comes into play, and when backing from a UN resolution would certainly help.
"If you are going to board vessels, you can do that now but you have to ask what flag the vessel has," said Dutch foreign minister Bert Koenders. "It cannot be done automatically,"
Koenders also said a UN resolution would be "desirable" if the operation takes place in Libya's territorial waters.
A UN resolution would likely become even more imperative if, and when, EU nations move to the next stage, which would involve the destruction of smuggling vessels, sometimes in the territorial waters of the nation of departure. The hope behind such a move would be to eradicate the business case for the traffickers.
"You can always start a mission upon the request of a country," Koenders said. "But then you hit the question, who will ask for that. You know there is a sense of anarchy (in Libya) and there is a discussion going on to have a unity government."
Moving into Libyan territorial waters, and perhaps even taking action ashore to hit at human trafficking networks, would be diplomatically sensitive and Russia has said it would not accept such action.
John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.