European Union ministers will try to bridge a divide over the surging refugee crisis a day after Germany reinstated border controls, curbing the freedom of movement across the continent.
Interior and justice ministers from the 28-member bloc will meet Monday in an effort to hammer out an agreement over binding quotas redistributing 160,000 migrants who have flooded into Hungary, Greece and Italy. Eastern European countries including Poland and the Czech Republic have opposed such measures.
Germany, which supports the EU proposal, on Sunday introduced the temporary controls on the southern border with Austria, where thousands of migrants have been crossing into the country. The move risks creating widespread disruption as governments weigh a further tightening of frontier controls across Europe. Austria on Monday closed the main highway to Hungary.
The re-imposition of controls abandoned some 20 years ago is a signal to Europe that Germany, the region’s biggest economy, needs more help to cope with an estimated 800,000 asylum seekers expected to arrive this year. The sudden move also underscores the risk attached to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s strategy of welcoming refugees while fellow EU leaders stand still.
Germany was right to temporarily suspend free-travel rules, three state leaders from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union said before a party meeting in Berlin on Monday.
The move was “definitely needed” because questions of security come first, said Reiner Haseloff, prime minister in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. Hesse state leader Volker Bouffier said: “It has to be made clear to other European states that this can’t go on.” Saarland premier Annegret Kramp- Karrenbauer said the Schengen open-border agreement “relies on the trust that the external borders are protected.”
Justice and interior ministers in Brussels will deliberate EU proposals to distribute the asylum seekers, with Germany, France and Spain taking the largest numbers. EU President Donald Tusk said Friday he’s “hopeful” of a deal but that he’ll call a summit of national leaders unless there is a “concrete sign of solidarity and unity” at the meeting.
Austria, which also backs the quota plan, will monitor the consequences of the German border-check measures over the next two days, Chancellor Werner Faymann said Sunday in Vienna, adding that he plans to meet with Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday. Austrian police in the eastern province of Burgenland expect about 20,000 refugees to enter the country from Hungary on Monday at the main crossing in the town of Nickelsdorf, public radio broadcaster Oe1 reported, citing local officials.
“We will continue to coordinate closely with Germany to achieve an orderly situation as planned,” Faymann said. “The refugees shouldn’t be the ones suffering from the measures, and they shouldn’t lead to chaos.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government is erecting a fence to keep refugees out, told Germany’s Bild newspaper that he welcomed the German measure as a “first step.” Hungarian police overnight cleared a large migrant camp by the Serb border, transporting families to an unknown location on buses and making way for soldiers who arrived at the site, Index news website reported, citing its correspondent on the scene.
Europe’s leaders are struggling to form a united front in the face of a mass movement of people unseen since World War II, as refugees flee conflicts from Syria to Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition to a summer influx from Libya across the Mediterranean, growing numbers of people are traveling from Turkey to Greece and north through the Balkans via Hungary and Austria.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said the German decision to tighten controls “appears to be a situation covered by the rules” of the Schengen agreement eliminating internal borders. The goal must be to go back to open borders “as soon as feasible,” it said in a statement.
As well as stoking EU-wide tensions, Merkel has come under domestic criticism as she struggles to maintain public support for her stance. Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian prime minister and chairman of Merkel’s Christian Social Union sister party, told Der Spiegel magazine that her move earlier this month to relieve a bottleneck in Hungary “was a mistake that we’ll be dealing with for a long time.”
Merkel, who discussed the refugee crisis with French President Francois Hollande on Sunday, defended her decision to lift EU registration requirements for migrants seeking to travel north from Hungary.
“We made a decision last week in an emergency situation,” Merkel told a conference of her CDU party on Saturday. “I think it was the right one, I’m very convinced of that.”