Germany has attempted to stem the surge of migrants into the country by introducing emergency border controls in a dramatic move that highlights the pressures the refugee crisis is placing on Europe’s cherished system of free movement.
Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister, did not specify how long the measures would remain but he said they were “urgently needed” for reasons of security and to curb the huge number of migrants heading for Germany.
The rare move by Berlin to protect its borders and place restrictions on Europe’s Schengen zone goes against one of the EU’s core principles of allowing passportfree travel between most of the countries in the bloc.
“We simply need some more time, and a certain degree of order on our borders,” Mr de Maizière said in Berlin.
After the move, which will initially focus on the Austrian border, Deutsche Bahn, the German railways operator, said trains between Germany, Austria and Hungary had been stopped.
As EU interior ministers prepare for a crucial meeting today to decide how to share out the new arrivals, many of whom are fleeing the civil war in Syria, Mr de Maizière said the move was a “signal to Europe” that Germany could not deal with the crisis alone.
Germany said in August that it expected to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, more than the entire EU received in 2014. Politicians were initially optimistic that the country could cope with the influx but, in recent days, the speed of arrivals has threatened to overwhelm the reception effort.
About 12,200 migrants arrived in Munich which has borne the brunt of the influx on Saturday alone. Similar numbers were expected yesterday and Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor, warned that Germany was close to “the limits of its capabilities”.
“It’s not primarily the number of refugees that is the problem, so much as the speed with which they are arriving that is making life so hard for Germany’s states and municipalities,” he told the German newspaper Tagesspiegel.
The European Commission said that Germany’s move did not breach the rules of Europe’s Schengen zone, which allow the “temporary reintroduction of border controls” in a crisis.
However, it is a highly unusual move on a continent that has for decades been trying to remove its borders. In 2011 both Denmark and France temporarily introduced border controls amid concerns about immigration while Germany used controls when it hosted a G7 meeting this year.
Berlin has launched an intense diplomatic effort ahead of today’s meeting to persuade other European countries, particularly in the east, to accept proposals to share out 160,000 refugees across the EU.
Poland, which had been a staunch critic of the scheme, is set to accept the proposals. But Hungary’s support is still in doubt after it came out against the proposals during a meeting of diplomats in Brussels last week, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
Member states are expected to agree to a watereddown proposal, with national capitals having the final say on how many refugees each country takes.