NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, left, talks with European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini during a meeting with EU defense and foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels on Monday May 18, 2015. 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 and NATO stands ready to help if needed, officials said Monday during a meeting of EU foreign and defense ministers. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini talks with journalists as she arrives for a meeting of EU defense ministers at the European Council building in Brussels on Monday May 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
BRUSSELS — European Union nations approved plans Monday for a naval operation to go after the human trafficking networks that are sending thousands of migrants weekly across the Mediterranean toward Europe or to their deaths. NATO said it stood ready to help out if needed.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said she expects the operation to be fully launched next month after Britain, France, Italy and other nations pledge military equipment.
More than 10,000 migrants have been picked up alive from Mediterranean waters in recent weeks as they attempted to enter Europe from Libya. The International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 1,830 migrants have died on the sea route this year compared to 207 in the same period last year.
The first phase of the EU plan centers on intelligence gathering and surveillance of smuggling routes leading from Libya to southern Italy and Malta. After that, EU ships would start chasing and boarding the smugglers' boats in a second phase. The 28-nation bloc is still seeking a U.N. resolution that would give them full legal protection as they destroy the smugglers' boats in a third phase of the plan.
"The fundamental point is not so much the destruction of the vessels but it is the destruction of the business model of the traffickers," said Mogherini.
Given that the summer high season for trafficking is rapidly approaching, she said speed was of the essence.
"As summer comes, more people are traveling and I'd like to have the operation in place as soon as possible," Mogherini said.
Beyond saving the lives of desperate migrants, an effective operation against traffickers might also deal terrorism a blow, she said.
"If you look at business model of the traffickers and the flows of money involved in trafficking, it may be that that money is financing terrorist activities," she said.
Stressing the same point, NATO Secretary-General Jens 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 smugglings vessels trying to cross over into Europe.
Despite the show of unity on the military action, the EU showed increasing divisions on the plan for mandatory quotas for member states to take in refugees, with Spain now joining France, Britain and Hungary speaking out against it.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the proposed quota for Spain doesn't take into account the nation's sky-high jobless rate of 24 percent and its efforts to prevent illegal migration from African nations.
The quota plan from the EU's executive Commission has faced an increasingly uphill battle since it was officially proposed last week.
Police in the Sicilian port of Ragusa, meanwhile, arrested five Africans suspected of navigating a rubber life raft packed with migrants that was intercepted at sea last week.
The EU has been under increasing pressure to take action to clamp down on the trafficking networks that have allowed thousands to die in Mediterranean waters over the past few years. To support its naval operation, the EU is looking for U.N. backing to make the anti-smuggling effort as comprehensive as possible.
The operation becomes tricky as soon as the boarding and seizure of smuggled vessels in international waters comes into play.
"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."
A U.N. resolution would likely become even more imperative if EU nations start destroying smuggling vessels, sometimes in Libyan territorial waters.
John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels, Alan Clendenning in Madrid and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.