LONDON - The European Union on Monday approved plans to use military force to take on migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean, significantly escalating Europe's response to a crisis that has left at least 1,800 people dead this year.
The decision allows European governments to move ahead with plans for a naval operation that has been taking shape for weeks and that officials say is crucial to any attempt to confront the burgeoning tide of smuggler vessels ferrying migrants from North Africa to Europe.
The ultimate aim of the mission is to destroy smuggler vessels before they take on their human cargo. But that will require authorization from the U.N. Security Council, which has begun to consider the matter after EU officials made their case in New York last week.
Approval is far from certain, especially after Russian officials expressed misgivings about a mission that could involve European warships operating in Libyan territorial waters.
Libya itself is divided, anarchic and at war, with rival governments in the eastern and western parts of the country. Much of the smuggler traffic originates in the west, where Islamist militias have shown deep hostility toward proposals for European operations in the areas they control. The internationally recognized government in the east has said it has its own reservations about the idea.
Nonetheless, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed optimism Monday that the EU's decision to approve the operation will help spur the United Nations into action.
"I think that after we take the decision today, it is more likely for the Security Council to take a resolution," Mogherini said Monday before the EU had finished its work.
After European foreign and defense ministers approved the operation, Mogherini said she was hopeful that Europe can win cooperation from Libyan authorities on both sides of the country. "We are looking for partnership in this," she said.
EU officials have said that the operation will not involve European "boots on the ground," but Mogherini said Monday that Europe will ask for Libyan cooperation in combating smuggler networks both on land and at sea.
As the diplomatic negotiations continue, Europe will proceed with the first phase of the operation, which includes gathering intelligence and lining up the ships, planes and other military resources likely to be needed for any serious attempt to thwart the smugglers. The EU has no military force of its own, so member states will be asked to pledge contributions, a process that has delayed previous operations.
Mogherini said the operation could formally begin within weeks and that it would be commanded by naval officers in Rome. The cost is estimated at $13 million for a two-month start-up phase, with the expectation that it will continue for at least a year.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday that the alliance stands "ready to help if there is a request." The migrant crisis, Stoltenberg said, has become a security issue, with the potential for would-be terrorists to smuggle themselves into Europe with the refugees. "One of the problems is that there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists, also trying to hide, to blend in," he said.
Europe has been inundated this year with about 50,000 migrants who have made the journey from the North African coast to Italy, Greece, Malta, and other countries along the EU's southern periphery. About 1,800 have died while trying to cross - about 20 times the number who had died at the same point last year. A combination of conflict, poverty, and repression is driving the exodus.
The death of at least 850 migrants when a single boat sank last month spurred Europe to take emergency measures to improve a response that had been widely seen as lacking.
Late last month, Europe tripled funding for a maritime patrol mission after a search-and-rescue mission that had been credited with saving more than 100,000 lives was discontinued at the end of last year.