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David Cameron has promised Italian PM extra help to tackle gangs smuggling people in boats from Africa across Mediterranean
David Cameron has offered to deploy an extra six British officers from the National Crime Agency to a special Europol intelligence cell in Sicily to “disrupt the trafficking and smuggling gangs”, Downing Street has announced.
In an attempt to deflect criticism that Britain is refusing to take its fair share of refugees rescued from flimsy boats in the Mediterranean, the prime minister made the offer of the extra agents to his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi.
The two prime ministers agreed over lunch in Milan that Europol needs to redouble its efforts to establish the intelligence cell in Sicily, which was given the green light at an emergency summit in April after the loss of as many as 950 lives in the Mediterranean boat tragedy.
Cameron’s offer of the extra officers came as George Osborne confirmed that HMS Bulwark, which has rescued more than 2,900 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean over the past six weeks, is to be withdrawn from the role.
The chancellor insisted Britain will continue to play “our full part” in search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, but what exactly will replace the 19,000-tonne warship, which is capable of carrying two helicopters, is unclear.
Defence sources confirmed HMS Bulwark’s temporary deployment was only for an initial 60 days, which will expire in three weeks. Downing Street said there was no definitive date yet for the withdrawal of the former Royal Navy flagship. The Ministry of Defence has said it is “planning for a seamless transition of assets”.
In their talks in Milan, Renzi made clear to Cameron that he expected Britain and other EU leaders to do more to take in some of the 60,000 refugees that have crossed, or attempted to cross, the Mediterranean to Italy. He said that Europe as a whole faced a crisis that merits an EU response.
Britain says that it is not obliged to take the refugees because it is outside the EU’s visa-free Schengen travel area. But this is causing the prime minister some political embarrassment in EU capitals where other leaders say that one of the EU’s largest and richest member states should step up.
The prime minister therefore moved to change the focus from housing the refugees to disrupting the smugglers. He told Renzi that the Europol cell in Sicily should be up and running well before the current target date of September. Britain has already deployed one NCA officer to Sicily to help set up the cell. The NCA, which has one officer at Europol’s headquarters in The Hague, is prepared to deploy an additional intelligence analyst to the Netherlands. Cameron told Renzi that Britain is also prepared to deploy six additional NCA officers to Sicily.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman said: “We think that the EU needs to be looking at what else we are doing to tackle the root cause of the problem and not just treat the symptom when people arrive here. It is something that was agreed at the April emergency European Council and it is an area where we feel there has been little progress since. Renzi agreed that this is an area where we can seek to make progress together.”
The spokeswoman added: “The prime minister agreed that the EU needed to do much more to tackle the crisis. He underlined that we thought the focus should be on the other shores of the Mediterranean and on breaking the link between getting in a boat and then getting settlement in Europe. As part of that, he said that one particular area we think the EU should be looking to do more is how we disrupt the trafficking and smuggling gangs that are operating in Africa. The first step in being able to successfully disrupt those gangs is gathering intelligence about them.”
The next step could involve armed force to destroy the smugglers’ boats on the North African coast. But this is seen in Whitehall as a remote prospect in the absence of a national government in Libya.