Work cut out: The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Berlin. The number of new arrivals in Germany has fallen dramatically in recent months. Picture: REUTERS
Work cut out: The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Berlin. The number of new arrivals in Germany has fallen dramatically in recent months. Picture: REUTERS

Berlin — An 11th-hour deal clinched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rescue her fragile government by limiting migrant arrivals immediately ran into European resistance on Tuesday, with neighbouring Austria vowing to "protect" its borders.

In high-stakes crisis talks overnight, Merkel put to rest for now a dangerous row with a longtime rival, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, that had threatened the survival of her shaky 100-day-old coalition.

Looking relieved, Merkel — who has been in power since 2005 — hailed a "very good compromise" that would "control" new arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers while upholding EU co-operation and values.

However, criticism from Vienna and her junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats, threatened to throw a spanner in the works.

If the agreement reached is approved by the German government as a whole, "we will be obliged to take measures to avoid disadvantages for Austria and its people", Vienna’s right-wing government warned. And it would be "ready to take measures to protect our southern borders in particular", it said referring to the frontiers with Italy and Slovenia.

The Austrian reaction raised the spectre of a domino effect in Europe, with member states taking increasingly restrictive measures to shut out refugees.

"If Austria wants to introduce controls at the border, then that is its right," Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said. "We will do the same thing and we’ll come out ahead because there are more people arriving here."

Under the pact both sides hailed as a victory, Merkel and Seehofer agreed to tighten border controls and set up closed "transit centres" on the Austrian frontier to allow the speedy processing of asylum seekers and the repatriation of those rejected. They would either be sent back to EU countries that previously registered them or, in case arrival countries reject this, be sent back to Austria, pending a now questionable agreement with Vienna.

Christian Social Union general secretary Markus Blume called the hardening policy proposal the last building block "in a turn-around on asylum policy" after a mass influx brought over 1-million migrants and refugees.

AFP