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Should Brussels fund border walls at EU frontiers to stop migrants?

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By Christopher Pitchers
Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere break down the fence as they gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.
Migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere break down the fence as they gather at the Belarus-Poland border near Grodno, Belarus, Monday, Nov. 8, 2021.   -   Copyright  Leonid Shcheglov/BelTA

As the crisis at the EU's border with Belarus intensifies, so do calls for Brussels to fund border walls aimed at stopping illegal migrant crossings.

For months now, large numbers of people from the Middle East and Africa have been trying to enter Poland, Lithuania and Latvia from neighbouring Belarus, leading authorities to react with a firm hand.

They accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russia of encouraging the migration to trigger instability within the entire EU, calling it "hybrid warfare".

But they themselves stand accused of illegal migrant pushbacks and, in Poland's case, imposing a state of emergency at the border that has prevented human rights workers from going there to help, as well as a media blackout.

Migrants and asylum-seekers embarking on this new migration route to the bloc are now ending up trapped between frontiers, with Monday’s latest escalation - which saw as many as 500 people gather at the Polish border, escorted by armed Belarusian officials - demonstrating why some member states are considering building border walls.

The Polish senate recently approved a plan to construct such a barrier at the Belarusian border, but it wants the EU to fund the new development.

A shift in opinions

In October, twelve member states including, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, sent a four-page letter calling on the European Commission to “additionally and adequately” fund physical barriers at the EU’s borders as a “matter of priority”, in response to Lukashenko’s escalation that month which saw more than 12,000 attempts to cross the Polish frontier, according to the country’s border authorities.

The move by these EU countries demonstrates a huge U-turn on the notion of building walls at the bloc’s external borders, which would have been politically unthinkable just a few years ago.

Even MEPs considered more moderate, are calling on Brussels to cough up the funds.

“The European Union should come up, as soon as possible, with a solid decision on [funding] border installations,” Lithuanian MEP Petras Auštrevičius said on Monday.

“We can't change the behaviour of Lukashenko, so that's why we better do things on our side in a proper way [by building a border wall],” he added.

But not everyone feels the same way.

Other European lawmakers say the solution is to place more sanctions on the Lukashenko regime and step up the pressure in other ways.

“What we can do now from the European Union is to continue to put harder and tougher sanctions on Belarus to support all the NGOs, political forces that worked for democracy and freedom in the country,” Karin Karlsboro MEP, vice-chair of the Parliament’s delegation responsible for relations with Belarus, told Euronews.

“But…it's not enough,” she added. “We have to continue putting pressure on Lukashenko's regime politically.

“We had the discussion this year about having the ice hockey championship in Belarus…We had the Eurovision Song Contest, which would be absurd to have had Lukashenko's propaganda channel as a partner. And now they are kicked out of the European cooperation for TV and broadcasting, which is super good. So, there are a lot of things that can be done politically towards institutions and other forms of cooperation.”

Last month, Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a European think tank specialising in asylum policy, warned the EU against entering "a contest of brutality" with Lukashenko.

He called on Brussels to find partner countries to work together to resist the "blackmail" coming from Minsk.

"The European Union should help these countries massively, and in return these countries could help the European Union. This is about protecting human lives, protecting human dignity but also not giving in to a dictator," he told Euronews.

Viktor Orbán vindicated?

The idea of EU-funded border walls isn’t a new one though.

In 2017, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán asked Brussels to pay for half the costs of an “anti-migrant fence” his country put up in 2015 to stop flows from Serbia and Croatia, arguing that it had all but eliminated illegal migration and as a result protected the whole EU.

The request was met with a resounding ‘no’ by the European Commission, which still hasn’t changed its view, repeating on Monday that it would not be funding any barbed wires or fences.

Speaking last month, Hungary's foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said that his country was “harshly attacked” six years ago for building its border wall and that now Lithuania and Poland are “being roundly praised”.

“I think we made the right decision six years ago: fences have proved to be indispensable for effectively protecting borders and the European continent as a whole,” he added.

Hungary will certainly be feeling a certain level of vindication, but for many in Brussels, the situation with Belarus is different compared to Hungary.

At the time, migrants were fleeing war and poverty, attempting to crossover into Europe on an unprecedented scale.

Auštrevičius, who did not previously support Orbán’s EU funding efforts, says it’s not the same this time around, as Lukashenko is weaponising migration.

“We are witnessing a completely new situation. Lukashenko weaponised migrants and migration. So, he did it on purpose. It's something different,” Auštrevičius told Euronews.

“When migrants are weaponised - when they install hybrid attacks…using migrants - we have to respond proportionally, and we have to respond effectively. So that's why, for the time being, a border wall is the right answer.”

Even Manfred Weber, chair of the European Parliament’s most powerful political grouping, the European People’s Party, says “countries asking for EU support to erect fences in sensitive border areas must be heard”, representing a big change in thought on the issue.

The big question now though, is as European opinions on border walls slowly shift, will Brussels eventually change its mind too.