European leaders want EU funding for border walls and fences

The EU's 27 heads of state and government are calling on the European Commission to use European money to pay for walls and fences that could strengthen the bloc's external borders. A controversial paragraph in their draft conclusions was only strengthened at the summit, which ended at 2.15 am on Thursday.

The arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky almost made us forget it, but the European summit held on Thursday also dealt with asylum and migration. The need for even better surveillance of the EU's external borders to make it as difficult as possible for migrants to enter Europe illegally met with broad approval.

Several countries - Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, but also Austria - spoke in favour of infrastructure such as walls or fences and argued that the Commission should allow EU funding for this. They managed to steer the debate at the summit in their direction. The European Council, according to the Summit conclusions, "calls on the Commission to fund measures by Member States that directly contribute to the control of the EU external borders, such as the border management pilot projects, as well as to the enhancement of the border control in key countries on transit routes to the European Union". Such European funding should be released "immediately".

Advocates can interpret the infrastructure and pilot projects described in the conclusions as a reference to fences and walls, although they are not explicitly mentioned. In the draft conclusions, the call was more circumscribed. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban helped set the tone at the summit when he said that he had already built a two-metre high fence on the border with Serbia, but wanted to turn it into a five-metre high fence with European money.

Asked if this meant that the Commission would allow European funding, President Ursula von der Leyen replied that fences alone would not work. "A lot of other infrastructure is needed around them, such as watchtowers, vehicles, trained staff, roads... Our focus is on functioning borders, so that procedures are the same throughout Europe."

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo did not intervene in the debate, as his government is internally divided. Before the summit began, however, he said that defending external borders is about more than infrastructure such as fences and walls. "It is also about de-radicalisation campaigns, it is also about making sure that the border is adequately secured. It is much more than just discussing fences," De Croo said.

In their conclusions, the European leaders did stress that they will always respect international law and fundamental rights when protecting their external borders.

At the request of countries including Belgium and the Netherlands, the final text included a reference to the new European asylum and migration pact, which is due to be finalised by next spring. The Dublin procedure, which determines which country is responsible for asylum application, also made it into the text. As long as the pact has not entered into force, 'Dublin' must be respected to counteract so-called secondary migration flows, Belgium argues. 

Belgium therefore also welcomed the commitment to improve the monitoring of national data on admissions and migration flows in order to identify migration trends more quickly. The state of play on migration will be reassessed in March.


Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during the European leaders summit in Brussels in February 9, 2023 © JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP

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