EU breaks taboo against erecting external border barriers, once dismissed as Trumpism

Member states agree to use tough measures to seal border and speed up deportations of failed asylum seekers

A Hungarian vehicle parked beside a barrier at the Hungarian-Serbian border last November. Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP via Getty

The European Union will use “all” tools at its disposal to pressure countries into taking back failed asylum seekers and will fund hardened infrastructure to seal its external borders, the 27 national leaders agreed at a summit in Brussels.

Following a visit of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the EU leaders turned to the topic the summit was called to discuss: how to reduce irregular border crossings into the EU, after an appeal for action from countries that saw a large increase in arrivals.

The joint conclusions called on the European Commission “to immediately mobilise substantial EU funds and means to support member states in reinforcing border protection capabilities and infrastructure”.

This agreement substantially weakens a long-held EU taboo against using joint funds to pay for border fences – once dismissed by the union as Trumpian populism – and it was welcomed by the countries that pushed hardest for the move.

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Officials say that EU money can now subsidise overall border infrastructure projects, by paying for apparatus such as watchtowers or surveillance equipment, while national funding is freed up to build barriers.

The national leaders gave their backing to a toughened approach with origin countries, saying the EU should use “all” relevant tools and policies as “leverage” to pressure states to accept their citizens back when they are deported

“We will strengthen our external borders,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised after the summit concluded in the early hours of Friday, adding that member states would speed up the processing of asylum claims and increase deportations of those who are rejected.

The joint conclusions set out that member states would be helped in “effectively preventing irregular arrivals” and that the EU would move forward in “preventing irregular flows, breaking the business model of smugglers, including through strategic information campaigns, and increasing returns”.

The EU is now prepared to wield visa or trade restrictions to pressure origin countries to address a lack of co-operation that is cited as a big reason why a large proportion of deportation orders are never carried out.

The national leaders gave their backing to a toughened approach with origin countries, saying the EU should use “all” relevant tools and policies as “leverage” to pressure states to accept their citizens back when they are deported.

“It’s a rough way to go and a big stick, but if they simply refuse to take their citizens back, we can’t not use it,” one diplomat said of using the threat of restricting trade.

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The leaders also expressed their “full support” for the union’s beefed-up border agency, Frontex, which now has the largest budget of any EU agency and has been accused by NGOs of turning a blind eye to illegal “pushbacks” of migrants as it works alongside national border forces.

Also on the agenda was how to keep EU industry competitive as it struggles against high energy costs, and subsidy programmes launched by the United States and China.

Smaller and more fiscally conservative countries including the Netherlands and Ireland have sought to quell a push for the EU to launch its own subsidy programme, warning of the potential costs of a subsidy race and stressing that reforms were more important to ease investments by businesses.

The leaders called for a strategy to “boost competitiveness and productivity” and unlock the potential of the single market, promising to return to the topic in its next summit.

After Zelenskiy made a direct appeal for negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU to begin this year, the 27 declared their “unwavering” support for the country in its battle to rebuff a Russian invasion and acknowledged Kyiv’s ambitions to make progress towards membership.

“The European Union acknowledges Ukraine’s determination to meet the necessary requirements in order to start accession negotiations as soon as possible,” the joint conclusions read, stating that “Ukraine’s future lies within the European Union”.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times