Gabriel Gavin Gabriel Gavin

The EU’s growing migrant war with Belarus

EU Council president Charles Michel inspects the new Lithuanian border fence (Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

The EU is building a wall — and they’re going to make Belarus pay for it. This week, the tiny Baltic nation of Lithuania began erecting a barbed-wire border fence on its frontier with its neighbour, Europe’s most notorious autocracy. Meanwhile, Brussels is ramping up economic sanctions against Belarus.

Lithuania’s parliament has declared a state of emergency, citing a sharp rise in migrants attempting to illegally cross the border. More than 800 made the journey in the first week of July alone, coming from countries like Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Congo. In response, hundreds of troops have been deployed and construction of a 340-mile barrier is underway. The EU’s newly established border agency, Frontex, has also agreed to step in to deal with the ‘urgent and exceptional pressure’, dispatching its own officers and patrol cars.

It seems Brussels’s former refugee policy is now ancient history. In 2015, member states were divided by Hungary’s decision to erect an electrified fence on its border with Serbia and Croatia. Budapest pitched the initiative in response to thousands of migrants fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, describing it as essential for the ‘defence of Europe’. Thousands turned out to protest against the move, insisting that refugees were welcome in the bloc. Those voices now appear to have lost the argument. The acute European migrant crisis of 2015 has passed, but cracking down on illegal migration is now an accepted part of European politics.

Sanctions have effectively killed any leverage the EU might have had over Minsk

Officials in Vilnius accuse the Belarusian government of shipping desperate people across the border as part of a deliberate policy. Belarus, they argue, is trying to destabilise the bloc. While a more muscular border policy is broadly accepted in Europe, it still has the potential to cause ruptures. Speaking at a meeting in Brussels, Lithuanian minister for foreign affairs warned that Minsk is using refugees as a ‘hybrid weapon’ and called for fresh sanctions against its government.

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