EU leaders have pledged to “keep up the pressure" on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to halt the flow of migrants from his country, raising the prospect of new sanctions amid calls by some bloc members to build walls and fences in a bid to thwart an influx of new arrivals.
EU members Poland and Lithuania have been struggling to cope with an unusually high number of migrants arriving at their borders with Belarus in recent months.
The EU accuses Lukashenko’s government of using them to destabilize the 27-country bloc in retaliation against EU sanctions.
After almost five hours of debate, EU leaders agreed that they “will not accept any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes."
They also condemned “all hybrid attacks at the EU's borders."
The arrival of migrants began increasing a year ago after the EU imposed sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over the August 2020 presidential election, which the West views as rigged, and the security crackdown on the Belarusian opposition and peaceful protesters that followed.
European leaders promised to continue countering what European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called “state-sponsored smuggling."
“The people used by Lukashenko are victims, we must help them," Von der Leyen said.
The EU's executive arm has already proposed the tightening of visa restrictions on members of Lukashenko’s government and Von der Leyen underlined the EU is ready to explore additional sanctions against individuals and entities.
Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers discussed possible measures against Belarusia's national airline Belavia.
Migration has been a sensitive and divisive topic since the influx of over 1 million people into Europe, most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria.
The exodus sparked one of the EU’s biggest political crises and member states have yet to find an agreement on a system that would guarantee shared responsibility for the new arrivals.
Ahead of the summit, a dozen EU countries said that the bloc should fund the construction of physical barriers to better protect itself.
The European Commission says it has never financed fences, although it acknowledges the right, or need, for EU countries to put up protective barriers.
Von der Leyen said that although EU funds are used for border management — including equipment, personnel and logistics — she said “there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls."
French president Emmanuel Macron said Von der Leyen made it clear the Commission would not finance such structures.
“Several powers consider that migration has become an instrument for the destabilisation of Europe," he said. “And so we should protect ourselves. But we should never do so by abandoning our values."
Auf Wiedersehn Angela!
On a lighter note, the EU gathering threw a big farewell party for outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even Barack Obama made a cameo video appearance.
Attending her 107th summit, Merkel was feted by friend and foe alike in an informal ceremony behind closed doors early Friday, where they called her anything from a “compromise machine” to the EU's Eiffel Tower.
Merkel has been the embodiment of the drive for a stronger, united Europe for years since she attended her first meeting of EU leaders 16 years ago. This, at a time when Jacques Chirac was still the French president and Tony Blair the British prime minister.
“You are a monument,” said EU Council President Charles Michel, adding that a summit meeting without her will be like “Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower.”