EU’s external walls are dividing bloc internally

by J

Jacopo Barigazzi -Politico

For years, the EU was distinctly anti-wall. That’s changing, ripping open a divisive debate about how the Continent should present itself.

As border walls form an increasingly thick concrete and razor-wire shield around the EU, their symbolic message is dividing the bloc itself from within. 

For years, the EU was distinctly anti-wall, heaping scorn on the approach as a short-term fix unbefitting of European values. And even as some members began erecting fencing, the EU itself stuck to its guns: Our members can do that if they want, but we won’t fund it.

That’s changing. Fueled by memories of the bitter fights that erupted when over a million asylum seekers came to Europe’s shores, as well as ascendant nationalism and — most recently — the incendiary actions of Belarus in pushing several thousand migrants to the EU’s eastern edge, a border debate has begun in earnest.

That debate is so divisive that EU diplomats are even arguing about what, exactly, is at stake. For many it’s about whether the EU should fund border barriers. For others, it’s about whether barriers are the most effective way to police Europe’s frontiers, a crucial question as the EU seeks to be taken seriously as a security provider. And for some, it’s existential: In the future, will Europe present itself as an open or closed continent?

These questions are demanding an answer. Border barriers are going up, and pressure is growing on the European Commission to help. In October, 12 EU countries urged the Commission to fund barriers “as a matter of priority.” The coalition included some strange bedfellows —  from socialist Denmark to conservative Poland — showcasing the Continent’s shifting dynamics.

Quite simply, the wall-building that NGOs and detractors have decried as “Fortress Europe” — a term also used by Nazi propagandists — is no longer such political anathema. 

The phrase, in the words of one EU diplomat, “is becoming less negative.”

Hungary gains allies

The ranks of countries pushing the EU to fund fencing have grown in recent years. 

In the aftermath of the 2015 Syrian refugee surge, Hungary and its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the champion of migration hardliners, led an almost solitary charge to get Brussels financing for a fence on the country’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia.

These days, Hungary is just one of many, joined even by countries not known for severe migration policies. 

Lithuania, which led the 12-country group’s letter to the Commission, is building a barrier across 502 of its 678 kilometers of border with Belarus. And it wants the EU to foot the €152 million bill. 

Other countries in the group have come together on the issue of funding, even if they diverge on other migration topics. Greece, for instance, signed the letter, even though it supports mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers across the bloc — an approach Hungary fiercely opposes.  

Several diplomats said this growth is part of a larger migration rethink that could also force the bloc to review the international rules that prohibit “pushbacks,” the illegal practice of turning back asylum seekers if it endangers their lives and denies their right to apply for protection. 

Notably, the 12-country coalition references the need “to adapt the existing legal framework to the new realities” in its letter. 

Yet so far, the Commission has stood firm with the European Parliament in refusing to yield. One EU official said there is “an agreement in principle” between the two institutions to avoid barrier funding.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was steadfast on the topic last month: “There will be no funding of barbed wire and walls,” she said following a European Council summit. Commission officials stress there is already much funding to support border management, as well as high-tech management tools such as surveillance cameras.

But the Parliament’s tune may be changing. 

As the topic has surged back into the conversation, the legislature’s largest group, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), came out in support of EU border barrier funding. 

“We, as EPP, we are also asking that in an extraordinary situation EU funds must be available to finance these kinds of activities,” said EPP President Manfred Weber.

However, the Parliament’s second-largest group, the Socialists & Democrats, oppose the practice.

The EU seal of approval?

The thorniest issue may not be the money itself, but the international stamp of approval it conveys. 

“They just want an EU flag on their fences,” said one official, arguing such barriers “are usually simply useless,” since they can be climbed or circumvented.

Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis disagreed. On Monday he called the country’s fence “a big burden on our budget. We would very much rather use the money elsewhere.”

Lithuania’s barrier is not just for Lithuanians, he insisted, but protects the entire bloc from Belarus. The EU has accused Belarus of luring Middle Eastern migrants to Minsk before pushing them to the EU border — a “hybrid attack,” in the bloc’s judgement, that uses migrants as weapons in retaliation for EU sanctions.

“We’re building a barrier between the European Union and a regime that is ready to build pressure on the Union,” Landsbergis said.

The country should not have to bear that burden alone, supporters say, as migrants intend to cross ultimately into Germany, the Netherlands or Belgium.

When EU leaders gathered last month, the subject featured prominently in their talks on migration. It was also on the agenda when EU ambassadors met earlier this week. 

Yet while a coalition may be building in support, the EU’s big powers remain inimical to EU-funded walls — and, in some cases, to wall-building itself.

“I am in favor of a Europe that protects its borders, but not a Europe that puts up barbed wire or walls,” French European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune told France 2 earlier this week, in response to Poland’s border barrier plans. 

And in Germany, only outgoing Interior Minister Horst Lorenz Seehofer seemed open to the idea of border barriers. Diplomats don’t expect the country’s incoming government, led by a center-left party in coalition with the Greens, to support EU wall funding.

The discussion has reached an impasse, diplomats said. Despite the pressure from member countries, they don’t expect the Commission to change its stance when, at the start of next month, it plans to present a review of the rules regulating the borders of the Schengen Area, the EU’s passport-free zone.

Six Berlin Walls

Regardless of EU funding, Europe is continuing to build walls. 

A recent report showed that since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, European countries have erected around 1,000 kilometers of land barriers — the equivalent of six Berlin Walls. 

As this construction has accelerated, the Commission has softened its rhetoric. In fact, it has even endorsed the practice in specific situations. 

When Home Commissioner Ylva Johansson visited Lithuania in August, she called the country’s border barrier “a good idea.” The year previous, von der Leyen praised Greece for being Europe’s “shield,” just as it was enlarging a fence along the border with Turkey.

It’s a complete turnaround from just five years ago, when von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, panned Greece’s wall-building. 

“No fence and no wall is high enough to deter these people from coming to Europe,” Juncker said of the fence going up between Greece and Macedonia.

Then there’s the law

Political rhetoric aside, there’s also a contentious legal component to border barriers. 

Last week, European Council President Charles Michel drew attention by claiming the Council’s Legal Service adviser had determined it was “legally possible” for the EU to fund border barriers, as long as the fences were managed in accordance with EU law. 

Respect for the law is a source of friction for numerous countries on the EU’s periphery, from Croatia to Greece. 

The latter are among several EU border countries accused of conducting pushbacks, which are illegal under international codes like the Geneva Convention. Facing similar allegations, Poland simply passed a law making the practice legal. Warsaw has also refused to give the EU border agency Frontex access to the Belarus border, where Polish authorities have used water cannons and tear gas to repel migrants.

Despite criticism of the alleged pushbacks from fellow EU members, one official predicted that if forced to choose between protecting the Geneva Convention or the borders of the EU’s free-travel zone, “we will drop Geneva.”

That means the whole debate on EU-funded fencing “is the wrong debate,” said Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank. 

“The problem is not a wall, the problem is the EU law applied at borders” he argued. “And what I feel would be a constructive way in this debate is to say that the European Commission can fund all aspects of border protection, which are legal, but only if it is verifiably true that EU law is being applied at the border.” 

As another official put it: “If it’s ‘Fortress Europe,’ it must have windows and bridges.”