The European Union on Monday approved the use of 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 E.U. officials made their case in New York last week. […]