EU leaders call for tougher migration controls amid border surge | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 22.10.2021

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EU leaders call for tougher migration controls amid border surge

The European Commission has spoken out against EU border walls, despite calls by some EU leaders to enforce migration controls. Leaders also covered spiking energy prices and a deepening rule-of-law row with Poland.

Refugees in Eisenhüttenstadt

Refugees are coming to Poland, Germany via Belarus in large numbers

The divisive issue of refugees and migrants was top of the agenda as the 27 European Union leaders met in Brussels for the second day of their summit. Their meeting came amid a surge of migrants and refugees trying to cross the Belarusian border into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

EU leaders have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of flying in illegal migrants to send them across the border, in an effort to destabilize the EU. Germany's federal police said last week that more than 4,300 people had entered the country from Poland after traveling from Belarus since August, compared with just 26 registered from January to July.

Soldiers stand along a Polish section of the border lined with barbed wire

Warsaw has deployed double the amount of troops at its border with Belarus in response to a surge in migration

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said Lukashenko was "weaponizing" migration by pushing people into bloc, and called for the EU to urgently revisit its migration policies and build a "physical fence" to control the border.

Watch video 02:51

German authorities worried by migration spike

"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," he told reporters. He was backed by Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, who said the EU should help pay for any possible border wall.

But speaking after the summit, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen ruled out any barriers on the bloc's external borders, telling leaders that "that there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls." She spoke out against the instrumentalization of migration by Belarus, saying that "no one's life should be used to put political pressure on the European Union."

EU leaders condemned "all hybrid attacks at the EU's borders" and called on the the bloc's executive Commission to come up with proposals to deal with the increased migration, though they didn't provide any specifics in terms of funds or concrete solutions. The Commission has suggested tightening visa restrictions on members of Lukashenko's government, and said it would also look at additional sanctions.

A map of Eastern Europe showing migrant routes into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia

Some analysts, however, weren't optimistic that those solutions would come fast enough.

"We are going to see people die in winter because the EU doesn't let them in, and that's just horrendous," said Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank. 

He told DW that Lukashenko isn't going to hesitate to push people back into the EU. "Then we end up with a fight of brutality, who can be more brutal … the EU or Lukashenko? And that's not a competition the EU can, or should, try to win."

Energy talks overshadowed by rule of law

Knaus said the ongoing defiance of certain EU member states to fail to comply with EU laws was, in part, contributing to the migration crisis.

"We are getting used to EU law being broken openly," referring to countries like Hungary, where the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled last December that the country's restrictive asylum-seeker policies violated EU law. "This kind of open defiance of existing basic conventions and laws and judgments does also undermine respect for the rule of law."

He added that this made it crucial for the EU to "take a stand" in the deepening rule-of-law feud with Poland, an issue that overshadowed discussions about the burgeoning energy crisis on Thursday.

Poland has been under fire after a ruling earlier this month by Poland's constitutional court that challenged the primacy of EU laws. Specific issues such as judicial independence, press freedom, women's rights, migrants and the rights of LGBTQ+ people have put Warsaw at odds with the bloc.

For Knaus, the solution was simple: if Poland fails to "address the structural collapse of its judicial system… then the recovery money should not be paid out, period," referring to the €36 billion ($42 billion) in grants and loans Warsaw has requested from EU funds to help its recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It's a view held by several western EU leaders, but a defiant Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that "neither the Polish government nor the Polish Parliament will act under pressure of blackmail."

Knaus said if Warsaw didn't back down, the Commission should go to the ECJ and ask for financial sanctions for violating Article 19 of the EU treaty, which guarantees the right to "effective legal protection." That fine should be at least 1% of Poland's annual GDP, said Knaus — which could amount to more than €880 million ($1 billion) every two months until Warsaw complies.

"What you have in Poland today is a collapse of the access to independent justice," he said, adding that this should be at the center of the debate. "And it's much more important for the future of the EU, and more consequential. It could be more damaging than Brexit."

Watch video 03:03

Poland's Constitutional Court a 'marionette court'

But outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, attending what is likely to be her last summit as an EU leader, warned against isolating Poland and stressed the need to "come together" and resolve the issues without escalation. "A cascade of legal disputes at the European Court of Justice still isn't a solution."

EU has limited role in energy crisis

The east-west dispute has jeopardized the EU's efforts to address soaring energy prices and stick to its plans to address climate change. 

Ahead of the summit, Poland called on Brussels to change or delay parts of its planned policies that could "have a negative impact on the energy price" and place an "excessive burden" on consumers, a view shared by allies Czech Republic and Hungary. 

Though leaders spent hours discussing what national governments could do to help their citizens cope with the price spikes during the cold winter months, like tax cuts and subsidies, the immediate role of the EU in addressing the crisis appeared to be limited.

Watch video 02:06

EU tackles climate as energy prices soar (06.10.2021)

Von der Leyen spoke of the need to support "vulnerable consumers and heavily exposed businesses," and said they would consider longer-term solutions like strategic gas reserves, joint procurement and diversifying the supply of energy.

"It's obvious that we need more renewable and clean energy," she added, calling it "carbon-free and homegrown." She stressed, however, the continued importance of nuclear and natural gas.

"We need urgent short-term measures to deal with the immediate price spike and the instability of prices that our reliance on gas has induced," said Colin Roche, an energy expert with Friends of the Earth Europe. "[But] ultimately, we need better medium and long-term measures, which are to get us off gas and to ensure that we have homes that are sufficiently warm without the need for more gas."

He told DW that the EU urgently needed to redouble its efforts on energy efficiency and energy performance in buildings in the coming months, and ensure that Europeans aren't cut off "simply because they can't afford to pay their electricity or gas bills."

EU energy ministers will meet on for an emergency meeting on Tuesday in Luxembourg, and Roche said he hoped they would " give a more ambitious signal to the European Commission to speed up the energy transition." The meeting comes less than a week before world leaders meet Glasgow for the crucial UN COP26 summit on climate change.

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