The old ghost of the walls haunts Europe again. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a controversial debate is resurfacing: Should the European Union build fences and barbed wire fences to protect its external borders? The reality is that it is already doing so – in the last eight years, Member States have built more than 1,700 kilometers of walls – although not to protect themselves from tanks or soldiers, but from migrants and refugees. But the key now is who pays for it, if the European funds should finance the cement, steel and blade barriers, as they already finance the purchase of radars or drones. The discussion is bitter, but the conclusions of the last meeting of the European Council, on February 9, suggest that the supporters of the strong hand are also gaining ground in this debate.
The European Commission, and countries like Spain or Germany, are reluctant to use community money to build more walls, they believe that there are more effective tools to stop irregular immigration. But the block in favor, with the Visegrad group at the head – the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – and the support of Italy, Greece and Austria, resorts to domestic logic: doors must be built in order to close them. In the end, the matter is much more important. It is a question of where Europe is headed in the face of the migration challenge, present and future, and whether it will continue to toughen its policies to address it. For now, everything points to yes.
The temptation to divide the world into parcels of land and sea has never ceased to be present in the European Union, which has been built by eliminating internal borders while fortifying external ones. Nervousness resurfaces with some frequency. It has just done so, but the previous episode was just a little over a year earlier, when in October 2021 the interior ministers of 12 countries wrote a letter to the European Commission claiming that it should be a “priority” to study how to finance ” physical barriers” for the external borders.
Years later, with migratory flows at relatively low rates, Europe saw how its partners and neighbors used immigration as a weapon to destabilize the continent and demand concessions. It happened in 2020 when Turkey opened its borders and threatened the arrival of millions of refugees or when Morocco allowed more than 10,000 people to sneak into Ceuta in May 2021. The last episode, baptized in warlike terms as a “hybrid threat”, was experienced in the summer and autumn of 2021, when Belarus promoted the entry of tens of thousands of people into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The answer was to build or extend new walls hundreds of kilometers between the three countries and Belarus. Now the war in Ukraine has raised fears in some countries that Moscow will add immigration as a weapon against Europe. Finland, the country with the longest border with Russia, has already announced plans to build a fence separating it from the Soviet country.
The European Union does not hesitate to invest large sums of money to stop migratory flows and the 6,700 million euros that the Commission has allocated for border management from 2021 to 2027 serve as an example. But until now, paying for steel walls topped with concertinas was a taboo subject.
The European directive is ambiguous and, although several community sources consider that there would be no legal impediment to doing so, the Commission does not want to. On February 9, the president of the European Executive, Ursula von der Leyen, once again insisted that what is needed is an “integrated approach” that implies the mobilization —and reinforcement, where necessary— of Frontex, the agency European border control, as well as the financing of mobile and static infrastructure such as towers with surveillance equipment or vehicles. She talks about infrastructure, but not about “walls” or “fences” and her face twists every time they are mentioned, as was seen during the last European Council.
The Commission does not finance walls
The walls, in any case, are already ideologically dividing Europe. Von der Leyen diverges from the theses of his political family, the European People’s Party (EPP), one of the main supporters of dusting off the debate on the fences. But the Commission’s refusal to allocate European funds to erect walls is also a pragmatic position, say community sources. Building fences of thousands of kilometers would cost a fortune that could be dedicated to other projects. Brussels believes, for example, that it is much more effective to invest in agreements with the countries of origin so that they accept the return of their nationals who entered the EU illegally.
Gil Arias, former executive director of Frontex, also declares himself a “skeptic” of the billboards. “Physical obstacles have never had a radical deterrent effect. We have already seen it in Ceuta and Melilla over the years; If they need to jump, they do so even at the risk of dying, as happened on June 24 in Melilla”, he maintains. Arias is committed to defending the borders with intelligence and not with concertinas.
Walls also have direct implications for respect for the rights and dignity of migrants and their ability to seek asylum when seeking protection. “The billboards do not distinguish between people who have the right to request asylum or not,” laments Ainhoa Delas, a researcher at the Center Delàs, an entity that analyzes peace, security, defense and arms. “Financing walls is a contradiction between the values that the EU claims to defend and what it actually ends up doing.” Tragedies, in fact, have occurred on those billboards, several of the most important in the Spanish ones. The last and most serious, on June 24, when at least 23 people died in their attempt to cross the Nador-Melilla border.
Spain remains on the side of the Commission and defends that the walls do not solve the migration challenge. But the official Spanish discourse shows, in practice, some of its weaknesses. Over the years, Spain has done nothing more than invest in reinforcing and modernizing the almost 21 kilometers of fence built in Ceuta and Melilla. The latest investment in the fence finally put an end to the concertinas that tore the immigrants’ skin and adopted a design that, according to Interior Ministry sources, would make it impossible to jump over. Spain claimed to Europe that the new fence was safer and less harmful, but at the same time, Morocco planted concertinas on its side of the border and dug deep trenches in which the migrants themselves assume that they will break a leg trying to cross them. Even with everything, in 2022, almost 2,300 people irregularly circumvented the land borders of Ceuta and Melilla. The upward trend has lasted for two years.
“It is not logical that the EU finances drones, technology or surveillance equipment, but refuses to finance means to defend ourselves; we need an integrated approach and the billboards should be included in the financial package,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said. “Austria is a country that considers border barriers useful,” supported Chancellor Karl Nehammer.