Two pillars of the European Union (EU) project have been the pooling of sovereignty and coordinated, mutually beneficial decision-making. Yet Member States struggle to acknowledge them and put them into practice.
A short time ago, the Interior ministers from twelve EU member states signed a joint letter inviting Brussels to finance a barrier on the border with Belarus. “Physical barriers appear to be an effective border protection measure that serves the interest of the whole EU, not just member states of first arrival,” they wrote. “This legitimate measure should be additionally and adequately funded from the EU budget as a matter of priority.”
The letter was signed by ministers from Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Slovakia.
The content of the letter refers to the opportunity of amending the rules of Schengen Agreement, which has since 1995 provided for visa-less travel between signatories, now amounting to twenty-six states. Without explicitly saying so, this clearly implies legalizing revisions of Schengen, indeed revoking core tenets.
It seems that these states are finding the model proposed by Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, appealing. During the 2015-16 migrant crisis, Orban said it was necessary to build a border fence to protect his nation from a free flow of migration, and he has now done so.
Five years ago, the fear in the EU was of uncontrolled migrants flows and radicalized individuals from Syria and North Africa. Now, the fear is from Afghanistan, a country that Europe has never fully understood, yet the Continent has struggled with Afghan refugees for some time and now the numbers are increasing.
Judy Dempsey notes that, instead of forging a common migration or refugee policy, the EU has dealt with it by exporting the problem. It has paid Turkey to keep migrants and refugees in the country and strengthen its borders with the EU.
In response to the letter, Ylva Johansson, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, immediately declared that these kinds of projects will never be funded by EU money. Other Member States distanced themselves from the proposal and renewed calls for effective partnership between the EU and the external countries. This seems like a more productive path.
The EU needs a more collaborative approach with the countries of origin, and those states that migrant flows transit—a strategic problem that has been too long delayed, despite models of the kind of accords necessary already existing with countries such as Tunisia and Libya.
The most frustrating aspect of the twelve countries’ letter, however, is that it was always bound to be rejected, and they must have known that. The letter, therefore, looks more like a provocation, than a rational proposal. Its real goal was most likely highlighting the rift within the European Council for political purposes—staking out a position that resonates with sections of domestic opinion.
The twelve countries have asked, and presented, a more extreme proposal, which will now have to be discussed, overshadowing the more realistic and urgent requests of frontline countries with sea borders, such as Italy and Spain. Indeed, the wall solution would create bigger problems for exactly these frontline states by redirecting large parts of the migrant flow to the Mediterranean states.
What we are witnessing is a return to an older style of statecraft. Six out of ten people worldwide now live in a country that has built border walls. Borders have always been core cultural, sociological, and political facts of civilizations. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, a different path seemed to have opened up: there were just fifteen physical barriers worldwide between states in 1989; now they are over seventy.