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Why Germany just closed its borders to refugees

These refugees managed to enter Germany before the country closed its border with Austria.
These refugees managed to enter Germany before the country closed its border with Austria.
Carsten Koall/Getty
  1. In a shocking development in the European migrant crisis, Germany is immediately introducing border controls in the south of the country, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced on Sunday. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed "urgent security reasons."
  2. The border controls are supposed to curb the influx of migrants. Currently, tens of thousands of refugees per day find their way to Germany, many of them from civil-war-torn Syria.
  3. The announcement is in stark contradiction to the principle of open borders to which most EU member states, including Germany, have committed. Apparently Germany wants to increase the pressure on the European Union to finally find an EU-wide solution to the refugee crisis.

The decision marks a surprising turnaround in Germany’s attitude toward the European refugee crisis

Germany is introducing temporary controls on its southern border with neighbor country Austria to cope with the influx of migrants, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced on Sunday. "The aim of this measure is to limit the current flow to Germany and to come back to an orderly process at entry," de Maizière said at a hastily called news conference. He also claimed "urgent security reasons."

The decision marks a surprising turnaround in Germany’s dealing with the current refugee crisis. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel had recently followed a policy of open borders and taken a moral leadership role in the refugee crisis. For example, she had announced Germany’s intention to take up considerably more refugees and provided for €6 billion in emergency aid.

However, now Germany clearly wants to show that it’s not willing or able to solve the refugee crisis alone. By closing the borders, the country increases the pressure on its EU partners tremendously to take their share of the burden.

Germany's controls at the borders apply until further notice

Questions from journalists were not admitted at the press conference with the interior minister on Sunday. He explained the details for the radical measure in under three minutes:

  • De Maizière pointed out the high number of refugees, who frequently first travel after escaping from their home countries to Austria and then start their way to Germany. On Saturday alone, 12,000 new refugees arrived in the Bavarian capital Munich. Germany expects a total of up to 800,000 refugees this year.
  • Until recently, Germany had granted these refugees free travel. Now, this no longer applies, and entering Germany is supposed to be possible with valid travel documents only.
  • The federal police are now sending all available police officers to Bavaria to close the borders. There are even considerations to use German soldiers to secure the borders. You can see consequences of the decision already: The Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s railway company, closed service between Austria and Germany for 12 hours Sunday at the government's request.

Germany is intensifying the pressure on less committed EU member states

As the interior minister pointed out, Germany's actions buy it some time to cope with the large crowds of people who have already entered Germany.

But the more important signal of the decision goes to the European Union: Up to this point, and no further.

Some EU countries, such as Germany or Sweden, are currently taking on a lot of refugees. Other EU member states such as Britain, Poland or Slovakia, refuse to take in significantly higher numbers of refugees.

This is something Germany apparently no longer wants to accept.

On Monday, all 28 EU interior ministers will meet for an emergency summit to discuss the refugee crisis. Therefore, the timing of Germany's decision is well considered to increase the pressure on less committed EU member states and urge them to make some concessions.

The interior minister made clear that the burden of incoming refugees from civil war countries like Syria would force action from every single EU member state. "I demand that all European member states stick to that in the future," he went on.

Angela Merkel is under pressure herself

Germany’s decision also is supposed to discourage refugees from rushing toward Germany. Most asylum seekers wish to stay in Germany when they arrive at EU borders. However, they must apply for asylum in the EU country in which they first arrive. Refugees could "not simply wish for her host country," emphasized Merkel’s interior minister.

The turnaround in asylum policy has domestic political reasons, too. While Merkel had received international praise for her open border strategy, the resistance from parts of her conservative party has grown immensely. For example, the chairman of the conservative sister party and coalition partner CSU, Horst Seehofer, accused Merkel of a "gross misjudgment" in the migrant crisis.

On a broader EU level, Germany’s radical measure is also remarkable. With closing parts of its borders, Germany temporarily revokes the so-called Schengen agreement, which provides free travels within the EU borders.

Most EU member states have committed themselves to the Schengen agreement. So this development is not a good sign for the state of the European Union, which defines itself as a group of cooperating and deeply tied partner countries.