EU leaders in standing ovation for Angela Merkel as they seek migration plan

Lithuanian president demands action amid refugee influx from Belarus

Departing German Chancellor Angela Merkel at what is likely to be her last EU summit. Reuters
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EU leaders have given departing German Chancellor Angela Merkel a standing ovation as they met to discuss migration, one of the major themes of her 16-year tenure.

In what is likely to be her last EU summit, she was likened to “a monument” by European Council President Charles Michel, who said such meetings without her would be like “Rome without the Vatican or Paris without the Eiffel Tower".

“You are a compass and a shining light of our European project,” he said of Mrs Merkel, who did not stand for re-election during last month's elections in Germany.

She was described as “a compromise machine” by Luxembourg's Prime Minister Xavier Bettel.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo also paid tribute to Mrs Merkel.

“This is somebody who for 16 years has really left their mark on Europe, helped all 27 of us [EU member states] make the right decisions, with lots of humanity at moments which were difficult,” Mr De Croo said.

Migration has been one of Mrs Merkel most divisive issues with eastern countries. In 2015 she opened Germany's borders to more than one million asylum seekers, most of whom were fleeing Syria's civil war.

Despite the plaudits, if the German political parties currently locked in talks fail to form a ruling coalition by mid-December, Mrs Merkel will be back in Brussels for another summit.

EU leaders were meeting in the Belgian capital to discuss migration amid an influx of people at the bloc’s border with Belarus.

The bloc has accused Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko of engineering the movement of migrants in retaliation for EU sanctions imposed on his government.

Thousands of migrants arrive in Belarus on tourist visas before crossing into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Many come from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan, and also from countries in Africa.

“We have to be decisive, we need decisions. We need action and we should do this as soon as possible,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said.

He is expected to appeal for EU funding to build a barrier on the bloc’s eastern borders.

“We also should talk about a physical fence or physical border, which is needed as a short-term measure,” he said, “because 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 have to be decisive.”

The Polish government this month approved a bill to regulate the construction of a barrier with motion sensors at the border with Belarus to deter people from crossing.

“We have to hold the Belarusian government accountable for these actions but also have a look at the airlines and travel operators who are co-operating with this way of using human beings as arms, pushing [them] against the border, creating situations in which there is an extraordinary violation of human rights,” the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said.

A draft of the meeting's conclusions seen by AP said EU leaders would not “accept any attempt by third countries to instrumentalise migrants for political purposes” and condemn “such hybrid attacks at the EU’s borders”.

The UN's refugee agency demanded action on the EU-Belarus border following the deaths of several asylum seekers.

“It is unacceptable that people have died and the lives of others are precariously hanging in the balance,” said Pascale Moreau, UNHCR's Europe director.

“They are held hostage by a political stalemate which needs to be solved now.”

Updated: October 22, 2021, 3:46 PM