EU's von der Leyen: Migration feuds leave borders exposed to 'hybrid attack'

Commission chief announces €100m in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gave a State of the Union speech in Strasbourg, France. AFP
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Europe’s enemies will keep using migration as a weapon against the EU until members strike a deal on managing their borders, the bloc's chief executive has said.

Ursula von der Leyen said the crisis in Belarus — where the regime is accused of deliberately ferrying migrants to EU borders — could be repeated elsewhere.

She announced €100 million ($118m) in new humanitarian aid for Afghanistan as the bloc tries to prevent a fresh refugee crisis triggered by the fall of Kabul.

But she said talks on an EU asylum overhaul had been “painfully slow” as countries argue over how to share out migrants.

She said human traffickers were continuing to exploit people in the Mediterranean Sea, where arrivals to Italy have doubled this year. Migration concerns have also cooled Europe's ties with Turkey.

“As long as we do not find common ground on how to manage migration, our opponents will continue to target that,” said Ms von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.

“Look at what happened at our borders with Belarus. The regime in Minsk has instrumentalised human beings. They have put people on planes and literally pushed them towards Europe's borders.

“And, let's call it what it is: this is a hybrid attack to destabilise Europe.”

Ms von der Leyen made the plea during a State of the Union address in Strasbourg, modelled on the annual speech by the US president.

She used the speech to promise more help for Afghanistan, call for more European co-operation on defence and security, and claim success in the bloc’s response to Covid-19.

Afghan support package

Ms von der Leyen said the EU would put forward a support package for Afghanistan in the coming weeks.

Her only concrete announcement on Wednesday was the €100m in increased aid, which comes with aid agencies warning of a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.

She said Brussels would provide support to Afghans in neighbouring countries, where some people have fled over land borders. Europe sees this as a way of preventing a refugee surge to Europe.

“I want to be clear — we stand by the Afghan people,” Ms von der Leyen said.

“I think in particular of women judges who are now in hiding from the men they jailed. We must support them and we will co-ordinate all efforts with Member States to bring them to safety.”

Defence autonomy

The collapse of the Nato mission in Afghanistan has spurred calls for the EU to build its own defence capability to make it less reliant on Washington.

Ms von der Leyen said this was “part of the solution” and suggested tax relief for defence equipment developed and produced in Europe.

But she said that a lack of political will was also holding Europe back, after EU countries proved unwilling to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan without American might.

“We have started to develop a European defence ecosystem. But what we need is the European Defence Union,” she said.

She said she would hold a European defence summit with French President Emmanuel Macron next year, when France takes over the rotating presidency of the EU.

Call for EU intelligence centre

The EU could consider boosting its intelligence capacity by setting up a Joint Situational Awareness Centre, Ms von der Leyen said.

She said this was not just about intelligence in the narrow sense, but about “bringing together the knowledge from all services and all sources” across Europe.

“From space to police trainers, from open source to development agencies - their work gives us a unique scope and depth of knowledge,” she said.

Experts and former officials have called for improved intelligence capacity to prevent a repeat of events in Kabul and to discourage EU members from spying on each other.

Covid successes

The EU was widely criticised for its slow progress in the early months of the vaccination programme, but many of its members have since caught up with the UK and US.

Ms von der Leyen announced that another 200 million spare vaccine doses would be donated to developing countries to address a wide gap in vaccine coverage.

She said Europe was the only part of the world which had shared half its vaccine production with other countries, with 700 million doses delivered at home and the same number exported abroad.

“Today, and against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders,” she said in her speech.

But she said there were “worrisome divergences in vaccination rates” within the EU. About 80 per cent of adults are fully vaccinated in France, but only 21 per cent in Bulgaria.

Updated: September 15, 2021, 10:47 AM