In fact, the move could be the best news Merkel has received in a long time.
If Austria succeeds in tightening its southern border with Slovenia, it will inevitably choke the flow of refugees streaming into the country on their way north, currently at the rate of 2,000-4,000 per day.
That means fewer will arrive in Germany.
“The action plan with Turkey … is still to bear fruit” — Donald Tusk.
Reducing the number of refugees seeking asylum in Germany is Merkel’s top priority. While many Germans were willing to take in the more than 1 million refugees who arrived in 2015, a clear majority worries the country can’t manage a similar influx this year.
Merkel responded by vowing to achieve a “significant reduction” in the numbers in the coming months.
Trouble is, nothing she has tried so far is working. The German leader has repeatedly stressed the importance of an agreement the EU reached with Turkey in late November aimed at preventing the refugees from leaving. But as European Council President Donald Tusk said this week, “The action plan with Turkey, although promising, is still to bear fruit.”
Merkel is set to meet Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Berlin on Friday, where she will renew an appeal for Ankara to redouble its efforts to both improve conditions for Syrians in the country and enforce its sea border with Greece.
But with Turkey’s internal conflict with Kurdish separatists once again on the boil, it’s difficult to see why it would make resolving Europe’s refugee crisis a priority. What’s more, the €3 billion the EU has promised Ankara in aid in return for help has yet to arrive.
Another pillar of Merkel’s plan — to secure the EU’s external borders with a new border guard — could take months, if not years to implement. Indeed, the European Commission hasn’t even managed to set up a promised network of “hotspots” in Greece and Italy to process the refugees.
Resistance in other EU countries to taking in asylum seekers, meanwhile, has forced the German leader to all but abandon hopes of a “fair allocation” of asylum seekers across the bloc.
Here, too, Austria’s move could help the German leader.
Merkel’s greatest tactical mistake in the crisis may have been to believe that other EU countries would support Germany after it agreed to take in the thousands of refugees stranded in Budapest in early September. While Merkel says she felt a humanitarian obligation to guarantee the refugees passage to Germany, the decision allowed the rest of Europe to leave the problem in Berlin’s lap.
If Austria stops letting migrants pass through freely, the refugees will again be stranded in border areas along the Balkan route. That could trigger a domino effect, prompting border closings from Macedonia to Slovenia. Macedonia said on Wednesday it would close its border.
If it remains closed, Greece, the point of arrival for most of the refugees, would once again find itself bearing the brunt of the crisis.
That appears to be Austria’s intention. Austrian leaders have made no secret of their frustration with Greece for shipping the refugees north instead of accepting more help from the EU.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann described his government’s decision on Wednesday as a “wake-up call” for the EU.
In Brussels, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Wednesday he wanted February’s EU summit, which is to be dominated by Brexit negotiations, to tackle the refugee question in-depth as well.
“In the end, the price will be very high” —Martin Wansleben, German Chamber of Commerce.
Though Austria’s government, a grand coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives similar to Germany’s, faces domestic political pressure to take a harder line on the refugee issue, it also made the decision with an eye on economic realities.
Germany is by far Austria’s largest trading partner. The open border between the two countries is at the center of one of Europe’s most vibrant economic corridors.
By tightening its border with Slovenia, Austria has reduced the pressure Merkel has faced within her own party to take similar steps on Germany’s border with Austria.
Such a move could have devastating consequences for the entire European economy, said Martin Wansleben, the head of the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“In the end, the price will be very high and everyone will have to pay, politically and economically,” he told German radio on Thursday.