Feb 22, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Migration and European Borders: That Moment When Other EU Leaders Sound Like Prime Minister Orbán

Clearly, the debate about migration and strengthening Europe’s external borders has taken a turn. Following renewed fighting around the city of Aleppo, nearly 600,000 Syrian migrants are reportedly bound for Europe, compelling Austria and Germany to change their positions on the question of border protection.

Six months ago, when Hungary was calling for stricter border protection, we were denounced. International critics, especially in the German-speaking world, beat up on the Orbán Government’s policies, denouncing us for speaking up about the risks of letting illegal migration continue unmanaged and uncontrolled and daring to erect a physical barrier to protect Europe’s Schengen border. Now, look at what some of the other EU governments are saying.

Austria announced new regulations last week that include a border fence near the border with Slovenia, which is also part of Schengen. That makes Austria the first EU country to build a barrier on an internal Schengen border. Other measures include stricter border controls that would be enforced by Austrian military personnel, as the government in Vienna has come to realize that mass migration must be curtailed somehow. But they’re not limiting their concern to Austria’s borders. Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, in a recent Der Standard interview, said that until a common European solution is found, the Austrian government will take steps to stop migrants and also suggested the possibility of closing the maritime border between Greece and Turkey. If necessary, Austria will extend the fence on its southern border, in order to cut off alternative migrant routes across Carinthia and Tyrol.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also striking a different tone. “We need to protect our external borders because we want to keep Schengen,” she said in her weekly podcast. Better protection of the EU’s external borders has become crucial, she said, emphasizing that a failure to guard the external borders could jeopardize the people’s right to travel freely within the Union. Merkel added that special attention should be paid to countries where the EU has external borders on the sea, referring first and foremost to Greece. Sound familiar?

The frustration of European countries is growing. The European Commission warned Greece recently that it should take control of its borders by May, or face the possibility of stricter border controls with Schengen states. The criticism took place after a draft report was published, based on unannounced site visits to the Greek-Turkish land border, concluding that there are “serious deficiencies” in the management of the external border in Greece and “substantial improvements are needed to ensure the proper reception, registration, relocation or return of migrants“.

But as the situation escalates from day to day, this is no time for debates over principle and issuing reports. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó highlighted the urgency of finding a practical solution to this crisis at a recent meeting of EU foreign affairs and defense ministers in Amsterdam. “We accept that principles are important and that it is also important to protect principles, but the situation is extremely serious and we should finally begin focusing on protecting people,” he said. A strengthened Macedonian-Bulgarian line of defense is the only logical step at the moment, which should be agreed upon as soon as possible. The Visegrád Group could discuss this at its upcoming summit in February, where representatives of the two concerned border states will also be present, the minister said.

The warnings that Prime Minister Orbán was sending as much as a year ago are proving well founded. That other EU members are finally realizing the scope of the problem is positive news. As Austria and Germany, among others, begin to get serious about the effective protection of the EU’s external borders, perhaps we can put aside discussion of quotas and focus on practical solutions that will be more effective in controlling illegal migration.