The EU will not fund “barbed wire or walls”, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said, in defiance of calls from some governments to build protective defences against migrants seeking to enter the bloc.
A number of EU leaders have voiced concerns in recent weeks over a rise in numbers of people seeking to cross the bloc’s borders, with eight having died at the Polish border with Belarus in recent months.
Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president, has been accused of seeking to orchestrate an EU crisis in an act of “hybrid warfare”, by pushing migrants from the Middle East and Africa across its border in response to sanctions.
At a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Alexander Schallenberg, Austria’s chancellor, said that “building a wall” on the Lithuanian border could be one method of defending the EU against what he called Lukashenko’s “cynical policy”.
“We also should talk about a physical fence or physical border, which is extremely needed as a short-term measure,” Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nausėda, added as the second day of the summit got under way. “Because nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. Maybe there will be three, four, five thousand migrants staying at the border at the same time or trying to cross the border in different places … We have to be decisive.”
But at the end of the leaders’ meeting, Von der Leyen, who has been tasked with finding a solution, said the EU would not succumb to such calls.
“I was very clear that there is a longstanding view in the European Commission and in the European parliament that there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls,” she said. “We will keep up the pressure on the Lukashenko regime.”
Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s prime minister, had been among the majority of leaders who had refused to endorse EU-funded border walls during the five-hour summit discussions.
“I’d be ashamed to see a fence with a sign ‘Financed by the EU’ on it,” he said. “These people are not being treated adequately, also by various European countries. An orderly migration must remain possible. We need to find the right balance.”
The numbers of migrants and refugees seeking to enter the EU remains comparatively low for a bloc of 450 million people. Only about 5,100 have arrived across the Mediterranean so far this year, several thousand of whom are thought to have crossed to the three EU countries neighbouring Belarus – Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
But the EU’s border agency, Frontex, said this month that nearly 134,000 had tried to cross into the bloc this year, nearly 50% above the figures reported for the first nine months of 2019, before the Covid pandemic.
After the lengthy discussions, the leaders deleted a clause in the summit formal communique that would have seen the bloc commit to “funding of physical barriers at the external borders”. “The EU remains determined to ensure effective control of its borders,” they agreed instead.
Despite the alterations, Nausėda described the outcome as a “satisfactory result for Lithuania”. He said: “I think now our partners understand very well the threat the frontline countries feel standing in the face of attacks from the Belarusian regime.”