BRUSSELS (AP) — An emergency search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean should never have been phased out and commitments made by EU leaders last week lacked ambition, a top European Union leader said Wednesday, following the deaths of an estimated 1,700 migrants over the past weeks,
In unusually candid language, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that pledges made at an emergency summit last Thursday to boost a European border operation dealing with the unprecedented wave of migrants leaving conflict-torn Libya in unseaworthy boats “were inferior to the ambitions that we should have.”
He also told EU lawmakers that the decision to phase out Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation late last year was wrong and had cost lives.
“It was a grave mistake,” Juncker told the lawmakers during a tense debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“It was not right to have left Italy to finance Mare Nostrum alone,” he added.
The Italian emergency operation was phased out late last year. It was expensive and politically unpopular in Italy even though it helped pluck tens of thousands from the Mediterranean in 2013-2014.
At the EU summit, leaders pledged to double the number of ships and aircraft in Europe’s Triton border operation in the Mediterranean and to triple its budget to 9 million euros a month.
Some of the assets for the expanded operation, which include border and migration experts, will not be available for several months, and many are only being offered for a month or two.
Juncker said that boosting Triton’s budget was merely “re-establishing the progress that we have lost along the way” as the operation’s funds now equal the amount Italy was paying for Mare Nostrum.