EU outer walls divide the block internally – POLITICO

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As the border walls form an increasingly thick concrete and razor wire shield around the EU, their symbolic message divides the block itself from within.

For years the EU was clearly anti-Wall, despising the approach as a short-term solution unsuited to European values. And even when some members have started to put up fences, the EU itself has stood firm: our members can do it if they want to, but we will not fund it.

It’s changing. Fueled by memories of the bitter fighting that erupted when more than a million asylum seekers arrived on the shores of Europe, as well as by the ascending nationalism and, more recently, the inflammatory actions of Belarus in pushing several thousand migrants to the eastern border of the EU, a debate on the border has started in earnest.

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

These questions demand an answer. Border barriers are rising and pressure is increasing 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 strange bedfellows – from socialist Denmark to conservative Poland – showing the continent’s changing dynamics.

Quite simply, the building of walls that NGOs and detractors have called “Fortress Europe” – a term also used by Nazi propagandists – is no longer such a political anathema.

The expression, in the words of an EU diplomat, “is becoming less and less negative”.

Hungary wins allies

The number of countries pushing the EU to fund fencing has increased in recent years.

In the aftermath of the 2015 wave of Syrian refugees, Hungary and its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the champion of migration extremists, led an almost solitary charge to secure Brussels funding for a fence on the country’s southern border with the Serbia and Croatia.

These days, Hungary is just one of many, joined even by countries that are not known for their harsh migration policies.

Lithuania, which led the 12-country group’s letter to the Commission, is building a barrier along 502 of its 678-kilometer border with Belarus. And he wants the EU to foot the bill for 152 million euros.

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

Several diplomats said the growth was part of a broader overhaul of migration that could also force the bloc to review international rules banning “refoulements”, the illegal practice of turning back asylum seekers if that puts them at risk. life threatening and denies their right to seek protection. .

In particular, the coalition of 12 countries refers to the need “to adapt the existing legal framework to new realities” in its letter.

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

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been steadfast on the subject last month: “There will be no funding for barbed wire and walls,” she said after a summit of the European Council. Commission officials point out that there is already a lot of funds to support border management, as well as high-tech management tools such as surveillance cameras.

But the tone of Parliament may be changing.

As the topic returned to the conversation, the largest group in the Legislature, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), came out in favor of funding EU border barriers.

“We as the EPP are also asking that in an extraordinary situation European funds are made available to finance this kind of activity”, said EPP President Manfred Weber.

However, the second largest group in Parliament, the Socialists and Democrats, oppose this practice.

The EU’s seal of approval?

Perhaps the thorniest issue is not the money itself, but the international seal of approval it conveys.

“They just want an EU flag on their fences,” an official said, saying such barriers “are generally just unnecessary” because they can be climbed or bypassed.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis disagreed. On Monday, he called the country’s closure “a big burden on our budget.” We would much prefer to use the money elsewhere.

The Lithuanian barrier is not only for Lithuanians, he insisted, but protects the entire Belarus bloc. The EU has accused Belarus of luring Middle Eastern migrants to Minsk before pushing them to the EU border – a “hybrid attack”, according to the bloc’s ruling, which uses the migrants as weapons in retaliation against EU sanctions.

“We are building a barrier between the European Union and a regime ready to put pressure on the Union”, said Landsbergis.

The country should not have to bear this burden alone, supporters say, as the migrants intend to eventually cross over to Germany, the Netherlands or Belgium.

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

Yet while a coalition can form in support, the EU’s major powers remain hostile to EU-funded walls – and, in some cases, to the construction of the walls itself.

“I am in favor of a Europe which protects its borders, but not of a Europe which erects barbed wire or walls”, declared the French Minister for European Affairs, Clément Beaune. France 2 earlier this week, in response to Poland’s border fence plans.

And in Germany, only outgoing Home Secretary Horst Lorenz Seehofer seemed open to the idea of ​​border barriers. Diplomats do not expect the country’s new government, led by a center-left party in coalition with the Greens, to support funding for the EU wall.

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

Six walls of Berlin

Regardless of EU funding, Europe continues 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 gained momentum, the Commission softened its rhetoric. In fact, he even approved of the practice in specific situations.

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

This is a complete turnaround from just five years ago, when von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, destroyed the wall of Greece.

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

Then there is the law

Political rhetoric aside, border barriers also have a controversial legal component.

Last week, European Council President Charles Michel drew attention by saying that the Council’s legal adviser had determined that 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 many countries on the periphery of the EU, from Croatia to Greece.

The latter are among several countries bordering the EU accused of having carried out refoulements, which are illegal under international codes such as the Geneva Convention. Faced with similar allegations, Poland simply passed a law making the practice legal. Warsaw has also refused to give EU border agency Frontex access to the Belarusian border, where Polish authorities have used water cannons and tear gas to repel migrants.

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

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

“The problem is not a wall, the problem is EU law applied at the borders,” he argued. “And what I think is 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 verifiable that the law of the ‘EU is applied at the border. ”

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

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