BRUSSELS – European Union leaders pledged on Friday to “keep up the pressure" on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko to halt the flow of migrants from his country and raised the prospect of new sanctions amid calls by some bloc members to build walls and fences to thwart new arrivals.
EU members Poland and Lithuania have been struggling to cope with an unusually high number of migrants arriving at their borders with Belarus in recent months. The EU is accusing Lukashenko’s government of using them to destabilize the 27-country region in retaliation for EU sanctions.
After nearly five hours of discussions, leaders agreed that they “will not accept any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes." They also condemned “all hybrid attacks at the EU's borders."
Migrant arrivals began increasing a year ago after the EU slapped sanctions on Lukashenko’s government over the August 2020 presidential election, which the West views as rigged, and the security crackdown on the Belarusian opposition and peaceful protesters that followed.
Leaders promised to continue countering what European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen called “state-sponsored smuggling."
“The people used by Lukashenko are victims, we must help them," von der Leyen said.
The EU's executive arm has already proposed to tighten visa restrictions on members of Lukashenko’s government and Von der Leyen said the EU is ready to explore additional sanctions against individuals and entities. Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers discussed possible measures against Belarusian airline Belavia.
Migration has been a sensitive and divisive topic since the arrival in Europe in 2015 of well over 1 million migrants, most of them refugees fleeing conflict in Syria. The exodus sparked one of the EU’s biggest political crises and member states have yet to find an agreement on a system that would guarantee shared responsibility for the new arrivals.
A dozen EU countries said before the summit that the bloc should fund construction of physical barriers to better protect itself. The European Commission says it has never financed fences, although it acknowledges the right, or need, for EU countries to put up protective barriers.
Von der Leyen said that although EU funds are used for border management — including equipment, personnel and logistics — she said “there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls."
French president Emmanuel Macron said von der Leyen made that clear the commission would not finance such structures.
“Several powers consider that migration has become an instrument for the destabilization of Europe," he said. “And so we should protect ourselves. But we should never do so by abandoning our values."
Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda, who wants a physical barrier on the Baltic country’s border with Belarus, was among those pushing for a review of the bloc’s legislation on migration policy.
Other EU states have been thinking about building fences. Earlier this month, the Polish government approved a bill that would regulate the construction of a high barrier with motion sensors on the border with Belarus to deter people from crossing over.
In their conclusions, leaders invited the commission to propose “any necessary changes to the EU’s legal framework and concrete measures underpinned by adequate financial support.”
“The Lukashenko regime now will see that the European Union is able to react, is able to take the decisions and is ready to defend itself,” Nauseda said.
Thousands of migrants have been lured to Belarus on tourist visas and encouraged to cross into Poland, Lithuania and to a lesser extent Latvia. Several have died of exhaustion at the Polish-Belarusian border since August, when large numbers of people from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, but also from Africa, started trying to cross, hoping to eventually reach western European nations.
Germany said it has noticed an increase of illegal entries along the German-Polish border since August, registering about 4,500 such entries.
Angela Charlton in Paris, Raf Casert in Brussels and Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this story.