An 11th-hour deal clinched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rescue her fragile government by limiting migrant arrivals immediately ran into European resistance yesterday, with neighboring 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 cooperation and values.
However, criticism from Vienna and her junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), 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 rightwing 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 specter 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." German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ceded to a demand from her hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to roll out transit centers where migrants will be held until they can be deported to the EU country they first registered in. These so-called "Ankerzentren" – or anchor centers, based on the German words for arrival, decision and repatriation – are controversial because migrants held there would have minimal contact with the outside world, be unable to work or learn German. German authorities previously distributed refugees across communities where they daily rubbed shoulders with Germans so that they could more easily integrate. Seehofer's threat to resign left Merkel no choice but to agree to roll the holding centers out along Germany's borders, but the plan still requires approval from her other coalition partner, the center-left SPD.
None of Germany's federal states have agreed to host such centers thus far. The transit center in Seehofer's home state of Bavaria that is meant to work as a prototype for the scheme has experienced high crime rates and protests by residents. Seehofer argues that the anchor centers will ensure more efficient asylum procedures as there will be immigration officials on hand to deal with asylum requests and legal officers to consider appeals. But critics say that the anchor centers may well become long-term holding centers. Unsuccessful applicants often cannot be deported due to missing paperwork or because their countries of origin are not deemed safe. Seehofer also hopes that imposing sanctions on people who leave the anchor centers would reduce the number of unsuccessful asylum seekers who go into hiding before they are repatriated. The government has not said what these sanctions would entail.