EU leaders adopted their toughest stance on migration in recent memory at a special summit on Thursday (9 February) against the backdrop of irregular border crossings hitting their highest level since 2015.
Migration control has re-emerged at the top of the EU agenda following a spike in irregular migration in 2022. Last year, around 330,000 irregular border crossings were recorded by the EU’s border control agency, Frontex, and national immigration authorities were under growing strain with large backlogs of pending asylum applications.
“We need to pull the brake on illegal migration in the EU,” said Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer at the European Council summit in Brussels. Nehammer’s government has led a so-far unsuccessful push for EU funds to be used to build a fence at the Bulgarian border with Turkey.
“We need the money for it, no matter if you call it a fence or border infrastructure,” said Nehammer.
The proposal to finance the border fence received little support from other leaders, while the bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, stated that “people move because in their countries there is not a future, there is no peace, there is no stability.”
“For the moment, what is on the table is Bulgaria-Turkey … but this will not be enough – so there will be again new fences and again new walls… Is the conclusion that we want a fortress in Europe?” questioned Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel.
However, EU officials said that there was consensus on tough provisions in the summit conclusions threatening to suspend aid, tariff-free trade and visa access to countries who refuse to take back failed asylum seekers.
The bloc would use “as leverage all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including diplomacy, development, trade and visas, as well as legal migration,” according to the final communique.
The right to link foreign aid to migration cooperation has actually existed for more than two decades under the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific community but has never been used.
A successor to the Cotonou Agreement, which was finalised by EU and ACP negotiators in 2021, remains unratified because the Hungarian government refuses to approve it on the grounds that it does not do enough to curb migration.
The Cotonou Agreement also requires countries to repatriate failed asylum seekers and economic migrants.
Ahead of the summit, European Commission officials were keen to play down the suggestion that aid could be suspended though Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, one of the more dovish EU leaders on migration, told reporters that it was “not unreasonable” to withhold trade access and aid for countries that refused to take back their citizens.
Other contentious points included the prospect of introducing a code of conduct for search boats operated by NGOs to rescue migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and tighter controls over asylum applications to prevent people from making applications in several EU countries.