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For several hours on Thursday, the only show in town was Volodymyr Zelensky. Then the leader of Ukraine left. And a well-worn conflict over immigration immediately returns.
In the early hours of Friday morning, EU leaders offered proposal after proposal, all seeking to curb a surge in people arriving on the continent outside legal channels. Some wanted to help Brussels pay for the border fence. Others emphasized the return of rejected asylum seekers.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tried to calm emotions at one point, according to an official familiar with the discussions. Did the EU want to turn itself into a fortress? Walls, simply put, don’t work, he said, pointing to the U.S.-Mexico border, where contentious debate over a wall has not prevented crossings.
In the end, however, Scholz and other EU leaders supported stricter EU border control measures – an indication of how the EU has shifted from the peak of the 2015-2016 Syrian refugee crisis to the issue itself.
Border fences, in particular, were once considered an undesirable, Trumpian solution in much of Europe – a blunt instrument meant more for show than practical use. But a growing coalition of EU countries has now put up such barriers, with some wanting to help Brussels pay more. And while EU officials won’t cross red lines to fund fences, they generally agree to fund surveillance technology and border guards.
“Borders must be managed,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at her press conference early Friday. “We will work to strengthen our external borders.”
As EU leaders flounder, Austria has led the pack in pushing for more border resources from Brussels.
The country has experienced an increase in migrants coming through the Western Balkans, often crossing from Serbia to Hungary and then Austria.
At Thursday’s summit, the country got its preferred language into the final statement, which urges the Commission to “immediately mobilize sufficient EU funds and means” to help countries strengthen their “border protection capabilities and infrastructure”. The statement specifically mentions “surveillance, including aerial surveillance and equipment.”
After the leaders broke up around 3am, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehmer hailed the result, in what may be the EU’s strongest language yet on the issue.
“The EU Commission has now agreed to provide substantial support,” he said, which means that an EU border country like Bulgaria can now use money from Brussels for border staff and vehicles, then use its own money “to strengthen the border fence.”
In Nehmar’s words, this means the EU is actually paying for the border fence, even if it doesn’t say so.
Bulgaria has been a particular focus for Austria. It also wants the EU to help strengthen a fence between EU border countries and Turkey, a project it estimates at 2 billion euros. But the commission has warned that it has only €3 billion left for all fence-related projects, according to several diplomats.
Austria is not the only country stumping for more border funding. On the eve of the summit, a clutch of countries, including Hungary, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Greece, signed a letter supporting tighter border measures. The missive echoed a similar letter from October 2021 in which 12 member states asked the European Commission to move towards EU cash border barriers.
Von der Leyen, who opposes the EU’s entry into the fence-funding business, said after the meeting that leaders had agreed to use EU money only for infrastructure such as cameras, watchtowers and vehicles.
He even noted that an existing fence the EU was trying to rehabilitate “doesn’t work” because it lacks sufficient staff and surveillance equipment. The effort is part of a series of “pilot projects,” von der Leyen said, that the EU will begin to explain, among other things, how a standard border would process asylum seekers.
“The focus is on having an effective boundary [so] We know that if someone comes to the border, there is a procedure that should be the same at the external borders of Europe,” he said.
Wilhelmine Preussen contributed reporting.