EU leaders call for tougher migration controls
The divisive issue of refugees and migrants was top of the agenda as European Union leaders met in Brussels for the second day of their summit. Their meeting came amid a surge of migrants and refugees trying to cross the Belarusian border into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia from countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Many EU leaders have accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of flying in illegal migrants to send them across the border, in an effort to destabilize the EU. Germany's federal police said last week that more than 4,300 people had entered the country from Poland after traveling from Belarus since August, compared with just 26 registered from January to July.
Arriving for the talks on Friday morning with the 27 national leaders, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said Lukashenko was "weaponizing" migration by pushing people into bloc. He called for the EU to urgently revisit its migration policies and spoke of the need for a fence to control the border.
"We also should talk about a physical fence of physical border, which is extremely needed as a short-term measure," he told reporters. "Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. Maybe there will be three, four, five thousand migrants staying at the border at the same time or trying to cross the border in different places.
"We need decisions, we need actions, and we need to do this as soon as possible," he said.
He was backed by Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, who said the EU should help pay for any possible border wall. "Why should this burden be paid exclusively by Lithuanian taxpayers?" he said heading into the talks.
Luxembourg's Xavier Bettel, however, stressed that the fundamental rights of people crossing the border must not be forgotten. "All measures we take must be in line with human rights," said the prime minister. "We cannot simply strip people of the most fundamental rights, the right of asylum. An orderly migration must remain possible. We need to find the right balance."
Energy talks overshadowed by rule of law
The first day of the summit, officially set to focus on the burgeoning energy crisis, was overshadowed by a contentious debate about the rule of law in the EU, with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki reiterating he would not bow to "blackmail."
Poland has been under fire after a ruling earlier this month by Poland's constitutional court that challenged the primacy of EU laws. Specific issues such as judicial independence, press freedom, women's rights, migrants and the rights of LGBTQI people have put Warsaw at odds with the bloc.
"Some European institutions assume the right to decide on matters that have not been assigned to them," said Morawiecki ahead of the talks. "Neither the Polish government nor the Polish Parliament will act under pressure of blackmail."
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and several other leaders said it was time to get "tough" with Poland, and not release the €36 billion ($42 billion) in grants and loans Warsaw has requested from EU funds to help its economy recover after the COVID-19 pandemic.
"If we want to keep functioning within Europe, you have to be able to fully trust each other's judicial systems," said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, adding that being an EU member meant accepting shared rules. "You can't belong to a club and say the rules don't belong to me."
But outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, attending what is likely to be her last summit as an EU leader, warned against isolating Poland. "The rule of law is a central pillar of the European Union," she said, while stressing the need to "come together" and resolve the issues without escalation. "A cascade of legal disputes at the European Court of Justice still isn't a solution."
The east-west dispute has jeopardized the EU's efforts to address soaring energy prices and stick to its plans to address climate change. Both Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, allies of Poland, threatened to not sign off on the summit conclusions on energy unless the EU Commission rethought its landmark policy package to cut carbon emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030.
Ahead of the summit, Poland said Brussels should change or delay parts of its planned policies that could "have a negative impact on the energy price" and place an "excessive burden" on consumers.