By Jörn Poltz
KIEFERSFELDEN, Germany (Reuters)
Near the quiet Bavarian village of Kiefersfelden, cars and trucks can be seen waiting in long lines to cross the border between Austria and Germany
Under the Alps, police conduct random searches of vehicles before waving them on. These days, there are few stowaways.
It’s a far cry from three years ago. At the height of the civil war in Syria, Chancellor Angela Merkel threw Germany’s doors wide open and thousands of migrants and asylum seekers entered the country each day through the rich state of Bavaria.
But the doors could be about to slam shut again if European Union leaders fail to settle differences over the bloc’s system for taking in migrants at a summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.
If there is no deal, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), which is part of Merkel’s coalition government, has threatened to start refusing entry at the border to migrants who have already registered elsewhere in the bloc.
Permanent controls could be reinstated at a border that has not had them for decades because Austria and Germany are in Europe’s visa-free Schengen area – the creation of which is seen by many Europeans as the EU achievement that, along with the euro currency, affects their lives most.
The number of illegal entries is tiny compared to the thousands who enter legally each day. Critics say tightening controls would be largely symbolic but could have far-reaching political consequences, possibly braking up the coalition.
“It’s absolute nonsense,” said architect Andreas Hausbacher, whose quickest route from his home in the Austrian town of Kufstein to the building site where he works in the Austrian city of Salzburg is through Germany.
Hajo Gruber, Kiefersfelden’s mayor, acknowledges the changes would be mainly symbolic but adds: “Merkel is right when she says the problem has to be solved on a European level. Anything else would be crazy.”
EU UNITY UNDERMINED
With populist, right-wing and anti-establishment parties on the rise in several EU countries, disputes over immigration are undermining unity in a bloc whose future is also clouded by the decision of one of its biggest members, Britain, to leave.
The outcome of the Brussels summit is vital for the EU’s unity and the future of Merkel, who has been in power since 2005 and is the EU’s longest-serving and most powerful leader.
Merkel, whose rich country is the most popular destination for migrants and Europe’s biggest economy, is under pressure from the CSU to win greater powers for member states to turn away those who have registered in another EU state.