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2021.12.07 08:00

Unprepared and panicking: Lithuania's border wall construction strengthens ‘Fortress Europe’ camp

Ieva Žvinakytė, LRT.lt2021.12.07 08:00

Having announced the construction of a physical barrier on the border with Belarus, Lithuania started urging the EU to fund it. The request has pointed to the long-lasting divisions over migration inside the alliance, but Lithuania itself has not prepared for a possible migration crisis, experts tell LRT.lt.

Joining another camp

In response to what Lithuanian officials call a hybrid attack that exploits migrants, the country’s government has decided to build a 502-kilometre barrier along the border with Belarus, which will cost around 152 million euros.

Lithuania is seeking EU funding for the construction of the barrier, as requested in a letter sent to the European Commission in early October. The Lithuania-initiated appeal was also signed by the other Baltic states, the Visegrád Group, as well as Bulgaria, Austria, Denmark, Cyprus, and Greece.

But France, Germany and Spain, the countries with the highest number of asylum applications within the EU, did not sign the letter. The non-signatories stressed that building barriers with EU funds would legitimise pushback policies that violate migrants’ rights and contradict the EU's international commitments.

“The EU’s principled position has long been not to have either internal or external physical borders,” Lina Vosyliūtė, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), told LRT.lt.

The Schengen Borders Code and the EU legislation stipulate that the borders should help control and know who is entering the country, but not stop the movement of migrants and refugees, Vosyliūtė said.

“But in the case of Lithuania, we can see that the barriers are being constructed to deliberately restrict the entry of asylum seekers and other migrants. It is done partly by invoking the label of hybrid warfare, which in a way justifies these actions, even though they contradict EU law,” she added.

According to Vosyliūtė, divisions over migration have persisted in the EU since the refugee crisis of 2015. Back then, the disagreements between member states became apparent when they tried to negotiate a mechanism to help relocate asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries.

In the wake of the refugee crisis, the Visegrád countries, led by Hungary, were the major divisive element in the EU, trying to prevent the resettlement mechanism from being implemented.

“So, Lithuania did not start this process of dividing the EU. […] But in 2015, it seemed that Lithuania was on the other side, and now it is joining and strengthening the anti-migration bloc of Visegrád countries,” Vosyliūtė said.

Lithuania’s position on barrier funding is supported by Austria, Denmark, and the Visegrád Group, all of which have traditionally been anti-migration and supported the idea of Fortress Europe – the bloc's insulation from external influences, especially when it comes to migration regulation.

“Denmark has been exempt from the EU’s asylum law for a very long time. [...] And in Austria, a right-wing government, which has long pursued an anti-migration policy, has been re-elected,” Vosyliūtė said.

According to her, these countries “perceive human rights principles and humanitarian law as nuisances that interfere with effective border control”, while Lithuania “has adopted and reinforced these practices”.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian politicians say that the construction of the barrier is in line with “today's needs”.

“The [EU's current] migration policy is at odds with today's expectations and changes are needed. [...] The EU external borders need to be reinforced as much as possible. The physical barrier should be one of the most important measures and should be financed from EU funds,” Lithuanian Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė said during her visit to Luxembourg in October.

She stressed that this was not only Lithuania's position, but was supported by 12 EU member states, a “strong signal” to the European Commission.

Panic and easiest route

Lithuania's request for funding the construction of a physical barrier on its border with Belarus has also led to disagreements among key EU institutions.

In response to this proposal, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said that the EU would not fund “barbed wire and walls”.

But during a visit to Poland in early November, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said that the EU could finance barriers on the bloc's external borders and that it would be “legally possible”.

According to Susi Dennison, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), disagreements between the European Commission and the European Council reflect the different roles that these institutions play.

“Ursula von der Leyen’s job as the president of the EU’s executive is to implement sensible policy decisions and spend EU money in ways that will produce results. Charles Michel’s job as president of the Council is to find cohesion, coordination, and cooperation between the EU member states,” Dennison told LRT.lt.

“Charles Michel is trying to defuse disputes between member states by showing that ‘we will look at all solutions’. Ursula von der Leyen is pointing out that this is not a good path, because we cannot build a wall along all of the EU land borders,” she added.

According to Dennison, Lithuania is not trying to divide the EU, but its actions show that the country “is panicking”.

“Lithuania is looking for solutions. It was right to put pressure on Brussels to support. In the Polish case, that's exactly what went wrong, because the Polish government has been dealing with the situation over the last few weeks as a national issue, rather than a European issue,” ECFR fellow said.

“The weaponisation of people wanting to migrate to Europe by Lukashenko is an attack on Europe and not an attack on individual states who happened to be on the border with Belarus. So, Lithuania is precisely right to be asking for Brussels’ support, but wrong to be asking for a wall,” she added.

According to Dennison, the number of migrants trying to enter Lithuania and Poland is “perfectly manageable and absorbable within Europe”, so “there is no reason not to follow our obligations under international law and not to allow these people to apply for asylum”.

She stressed that countries with well-functioning asylum application procedures and integration policies did not feel the need to talk about stopping migrants with physical barriers.

“Those types of political proposals tend to be by governments that are clutching at straws, because they feel that they cannot convince their domestic populations that the situation is under control,” Denison said.

CEPS research fellow Vosyliūtė also agreed that Lithuania resorted to building a physical barrier because it had failed to prepare mechanisms for receiving migrants and processing asylum applications.

“Lithuania has always had an external border, and we have simply ignored it for years. So it should not be a surprise that asylum seekers have come to this border eventually,” she said.

According to Vosyliūtė, Lithuania should have started developing migration mechanisms in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis, when the relocation of refugees was being implemented in the EU.

“Both politicians and institutions could have started building and strengthening the migration system back then. But now, the country's lack of preparation is being used as a reason not to implement EU law,” Vosyliūtė said.

“We are playing with the rhetoric that we are unprepared, but whether there has ever been the will to prepare is a separate question,” she added.

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