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Merkel last-ditch migrant deal faces EU headwinds

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An 11th hour deal clinched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rescue her fragile government by limiting migrant arrivals immediately ran into European resistance Tuesday, with neighbouring Austria vowing to "protect" its borders.

[BERLIN] An 11th hour deal clinched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to rescue her fragile government by limiting migrant arrivals immediately ran into European resistance Tuesday, with neighbouring 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.

A relieved-looking Merkel, who has been in power since 2005, emerged from the late-night negotiations hailing 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 partner, the Social Democrats, threatened to throw a spanner in the works just as Germany hoped to emerge from a crippling weeks-long political standstill.

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If the agreement reached Monday evening is approved by the German government as a whole, "we will be obliged to take measures to avoid disadvantages for Austria and its people," the right-wing Austrian government said in a statement.

It added it would be "ready to take measures to protect our southern borders in particular," those with Italy and Slovenia.

The remarks raised the spectre of a domino effect in Europe, with member states taking increasingly restrictive measures to shut out refugees.

- 'Mass internment camps' -

Under the pact both sides hailed as a victory, Merkel and Seehofer agreed to tighten border controls and set up closed "transit centres" to allow the speedy processing of asylum seekers and the repatriation of those who are rejected.

They said would either be sent back to EU countries that previously registered them or, in case arrival countries reject this -- likely including frontline state Italy -- be sent back to Austria, pending a now questionable agreement with Vienna.

CSU general secretary Markus Blume called the hardening policy proposal the last building block "in a turn-around on asylum policy" after a mass influx brought over one million migrants and refugees.

But doubts were voiced quickly by other parties and groups, accusing Merkel of bidding a final farewell to her welcoming stance toward asylum seekers taken at the height of the influx in 2015.

Refugee support group Pro Asyl slammed what it labelled "detention centres in no-man's land" and charged that German power politics were being played out "on the backs of those in need of protection".

Annalena Baerbock of the opposition Greens party spoke of "internment camps", accusing the conservatives of "bidding goodbye to our country's moral compass". She urged Merkel's other coalition ally, the Social Democrats (SPD), to reject the plan.

SPD leader Andrea Nahles said Tuesday after a party meeting that it still had "has significant questions" on the deal. The Social Democrats are to hold joint party meeting with the CDU/CSU bloc at 1600 GMT Tuesday.

"We will take the time we need to take a decision," she said.

One of the SPD's migration experts, Aziz Bozkurt, was withering, charging that the proposed holding centres would be "impractical and fully on track with the AfD" -- the far-right party that has railed most loudly against immigrants.

- 'Toxic mood' -

The deal announced overnight ended Merkel's worst crisis after she faced down an unprecedented mutiny by Seehofer, head of her party's traditional Bavarian allies the CSU.

A failure to defuse the open conflict would have threatened an end to their 70-year party alliance, a scenario which would have forced Merkel to find new partners or call fresh elections.

Top-circulation Bild daily -- which had called the weeks-long battle "Merkel's endgame" after 12 years in power -- gave a lukewarm welcome to the face-saving agreement.

"The CDU and CSU have now struck a deal they could have reached three years ago," it said.

"It's possible that this solution will work," Bild said in its commentary. "But it's certain that the mood in a coalition has never been as toxic as in this one."

The daily Berliner Zeitung said the government for Merkel's fourth term formed in March had barely started work before it lurched into vicious infighting.

"This government isn't governing, regardless of whether Horst Seehofer stays or goes," it said.

"It has actually not even governed over the last few months -- it is mainly running in circles over migration."

AFP