The European Union will not fund border walls to control migration, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen vowed after a group of member states demanded EU cash to fortify their frontiers.
In recent years member states have begun plans to build hundreds of kilometres of barriers along the union’s eastern boundaries, reflecting hardened policies towards migration across the bloc.
Several national leaders called for EU cash to fund the construction as they met in Brussels this week.
“We also should talk about a physical fence or physical border, which is extremely needed as a short-term measure in order to deal with this crisis,” Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda said at the summit.
Tensions over the issue have exploded in eastern member states since the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus began flying people from the Middle East and ushering them towards the borders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, seen as retaliation for EU sanctions against the regime.
Several people have died along the border in recent weeks, with many caught in desperate circumstances between Polish and Belarusian border forces as temperatures drop.
More than one leader warned that Minsk was seeking to establish new air routes to bring people in, after the EU shut down some corridors by negotiating with the countries of origin.
“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,” Mr Nauseda told journalists. ”We will not be ready to take this challenge. So this is the reason we have to be decisive.”
The appeal was backed by Austria’s new chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, who asked “Why should this burden be paid exclusively by Lithuanian taxpayers?” Greece, which has long complained that migration is used for political ends by its neighbour, Turkey, also backed the call, with prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis suggesting this would be a way “to be serious and effective in guarding the European borders”.
In recent weeks, the interior ministers of a dozen member states appealed to the European Commission to tweak its rules to allow for EU funds to finance border barriers, in a letter signed by Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary and Slovakia, among others.
The current European Commission does not oppose the idea of walls per se, itself a shift from 2017, when the chief diplomat of the prior administration, Federica Mogherini, criticised then-US president Donald Trump’s wall-building plans by saying that Europe has “a tradition that we celebrate when walls are brought down”.
However, the executive maintains that budget rules exclude the use of EU funds to build such barriers, a position that President von der Leyen firmly repeated on Friday despite the appeals.
“There will be no funding of barbed wire and walls,” Dr von der Leyen told journalists, while accusing the Belarusian regime of “state-sponsored smuggling”.
“We consider the behaviour of the Lukashenko government as a hybrid attack,” she said. “The people used by Lukashenko are victims. We must help them. No one’s life should be used for political issues, and this is an instrumentalisation of migration to put political pressure on the European Union.”
Irish companies that lease aircraft have come into focus, as officials are concerned that EU planes are being used in the ploy.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has backed extending sanctions on Belarus to cover aviation, but has warned that breaking existing contracts could be legally complex. He condemned the movement of people by Belarus as a “heinous act” done as a “retaliatory measure” against the EU.
“In my view it’s reprehensible that any government or any leadership would go to another country and traffic people essentially,” he said. “It is a very low form of behaviour.”