BRUSSELS – European Union leaders on Thursday started committing new resources to save lives in the Mediterranean at an emergency summit convened after hundreds of migrants drowned in the space of a few days, and were discussing laying the ground for military action against traffickers.
"First and foremost now, we have to save lives and take the right measures to do so," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she arrived.
Officials said the 28 nations were closing in more than doubling the finances for the EU's border operation that patrols the Mediterranean and could be called on for emergency rescues. It currently stands at 2.9 million euros ($3.1 million) a month.
Leaders were also expected to assign EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to line up the options that would allow EU military to strike against the boats used by traffickers.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the summit was continuing, said diplomatic preparation for military action would likely take a couple of months, putting off talk of immediate action against the traffickers.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would contribute the navy's flagship, HMS Bulwark, along with three helicopters and two border patrol ships to the EU effort. "As the country in Europe with the biggest defense budget we can make a real contribution," he said, but added that this would not include accepting a share of the refugees.
German army sources told the DPA news agency Berlin would offer to send the troop supply ship "Berlin" as well as frigates "Karlsruhe" and "Hessen" toward Italy. The ships currently participate in the anti-piracy operation Atalanta at the Horn of Africa and could be in the Mediterranean within five days.
Belgium and Ireland each said they stood ready to commit a navy ship.
The task ahead is huge, with more than 10,000 migrants plucked from seas between Italy and Libya just over the last week, fleeing poverty and conflict.
For several years, EU leaders have done little more than deplore the rising death toll and mark tragedies with moments of silence and wreaths instead of fundamental action. When Libya disintegrated politically after the overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Europe failed to take forceful action.
"Right now it's a question of fixing yesterday's errors," said French President Francois Hollande.
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."
Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, said the EU had not moved in decades on its migrant policies.
"For 20 years, the European Parliament has been calling for a truly European asylum and migration policy," Schulz said. "I could still deliver the same speech, I delivered 20 years ago. Sadly and tragically."
Even optimists say any emergency measures agreed at Thursday's summit would not fully stem the tide of rickety ships crossing the Mediterranean.
"Europe is declaring war on smugglers," said the EU's top migration official, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who was in Malta to attend the funeral of 24 migrants who perished at sea.
So far, that has been a halfhearted skirmish, lamented Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the EU parliament's liberal ALDE group.
He complained the EU border operation Frontex had only two helicopters and seven ships in the Mediterranean. "We need a multitude out there," he said.
The draft statement also called for "a first voluntary pilot project on resettlement, offering at least 5,000 places to persons qualifying for protection."
That resettlement plan would amount to about half of the number which arrived in just the last week and a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands likely to arrive this year.
Here too a continental rift was already obvious, with countries like Germany, Sweden, France and Italy dealing with a disproportionate number of asylum requests while many eastern and Baltic member states hardly take any. Five of the 28 member states are handling almost 70 percent of the migrants coming in.
Cameron, two weeks away from a national election in which immigration is a major issue, said Britain was not in the front line to take more migrants. British vessels would take migrants "to the nearest safe country, mostly likely Italy," he said.
In a joint statement, the U.N.'s top refugee and migration officials called for an EU-wide resettlement plan and for beefing up the capacity of front-line countries Greece, Italy and Malta to receive more migrants.
The draft statement also proposes cutting the time needed to process would-be migrants, which can now take up to a year before a person is deemed legitimate to stay, to as little as two months.