Overwhelmed by an unabated crush of thousands of asylum seekers a day, Germany introduced emergency border controls Sunday that effectively smother the EU’s founding principle of free movement.

Berlin announced that the temporary measure would be taken first on the southern frontier with Austria, where migrant arrivals have soared since Chancellor Angela Merkel effectively opened German borders to refugees a week ago.

Europe’s largest and richest economy, Germany has become a magnet for people fleeing war and poverty who are making journeys from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries, by sea and land.

Germany made clear it wanted EU partners to share the burden of welcoming thousands of refugees. “It’s true: The European lack of action in the refugee crisis is now pushing even Germany to the limit of its ability,” German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

Germany’s move comes a day before an EU interior ministers’ summit on Monday to find ways to share the refugee burden. The meeting is bound to be acrimonious.

The countries in the east of the EU, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Slovakia, are generally resistant to plans by the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, to install a compulsory quota system.

Britain has an opt-out that means it can avoid taking any refugees in the EC plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees across member states.

Amid the political bickering among European governments, the crisis claimed yet more lives. On Sunday, 34 refugees, almost half of them babies and children, drowned off a Greek island when their boat sank, the coast guard said.

Germany can legitimately claim to be overburdened. On Saturday, more than 13,000 refugees arrived at the main train station in Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria. A few thousand more arrived Sunday morning. The influx prompted the city’s mayor Dieter Reiter to declare his city “full.”

As train stations and refugee centres in the country reached breaking point, mayors and regional interior ministers pleaded for help and threatened political mutiny against Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party.

The German government responded by halting all train travel from Austria, the principal conduit country for refugees headed to Germany, at 5 p.m. on Sunday. Only EU citizens with valid documents such as passports were allowed to pass into Germany.

“It’s not feasible for us to take in the equivalent of a small town’s population every day,” Christoph Hillenbrand, president of Germany’s Upper Bavaria region, said on Sunday. “It’s simply not doable logistically any more.”

At the same time, Austria halted trains arriving from Hungary, which is erecting a 175-kilometre-long razor-wire fence along its Serbian border, to the south; the fence should be completed by Tuesday. The Czech Republic also said it would impose border controls along its border with Austria.

Mr. Gabriel, Germany’s Vice-Chancellor, warned on Sunday that his country was losing its ability to cope with the enormous inflow of migrants. “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 said.

At a press conference in Berlin, Thomas de Mazière, Germany’s interior minister, said the border controls were “urgently needed” because migrant arrivals, whose numbers have exceeded all forecasts, were creating chaos along Germany’s borders. “We simply need some more time, and a certain degree of order on our borders,” he said.

He did not say how long the border controls would last, though the arrival of record numbers of refugees suggests the controls will not disappear quickly unless other EU countries take some of the pressure off Germany. Mr. de Mazière called the border controls a “signal to all of Europe” that Germany could not cope with the refugee crisis largely on its own.

“Germany is committed to its humanitarian responsibilities, but the burden of such a large number of refugees must be shared fairly around Europe,” he said.

One report said the number of refugee arrival in Munich was expected to reach 40,000 by the end of the weekend, though the border controls probably ensured that the estimate was not reached. About 450,000 migrants, many from Syria, have reached Germany this year. In August alone, the number was 160,000. Another 60,000 or more have arrived in September. Germany last month said it expected to receive 800,000 asylum seekers this year, though the number could reach one million. Germany’s intake in 2015 will exceed all of the migrants received by all 28 member state of the EU last year.

The refugee crisis has knocked loose one of the key building blocks of the EU – the Schengen Agreement. The agreement came into effect in 1995 and allows passport-free travel in 26 member states (Britain is the notable exception). When it was launched and expanded over the years, Schengen, named after the town in Luxembourg where it was conceived, became the symbol of the success of the European integration process.

Schengen was in trouble even before Germany imposed border controls on Sunday. Italy, which has been the destination for hundreds of thousands of migrants from Africa since the start of the Libyan civil war, in 2011, has called for a review of Schengen. So has France. Earlier this year, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte threatened to push Greece out of Schengen unless it prevented undocumented migrants from obtaining free passage to the rest of the EU.

At a press conference on Aug. 31, Ms. Merkel warned: “If it’s not possible to achieve a fair allocation of refugees within Europe, then some people will want to put Schengen on the agenda.”

The German border controls do not mean that Schengen is about to die; the agreement’s rules allow its temporary suspension in times of crisis. But with no fewer than three countries having imposed border controls – one of them the EU’s most powerful country – the agreement seems destined for an overhaul that could place limits on the right to free movement.

Czech Republic Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have been particularly scathing about free mobility at a time when migrants are flooding into the EU.

In a statement, Mr. Sobotka said he wasn’t surprised that Germany was forced to close its border along the Austrian frontier. “The EU was not able to thoroughly observe its own rules when handling the migrant crisis and efficiently protect the outer border of the Schengen area,” he said. “So now it is necessary to take operational steps to boost the security of individual countries and contain the inflow of refugees.”

This week, Hungary is to introduce a tough new immigration law that will make illegal crossings into Hungary punishable with jail terms. “These migrants are not coming our way from war zones but from camps in Syria’s neighbours,” Mr. Orban told Germany’s Bild newspaper. “So these people are not fleeing danger and don’t need to be scared for their lives.”

The diverging views on how and where to resettle migrants had divided the EU, possibly leading to the collapse of the EC’s quota plan. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said that Hungary’s treatment of refugees was harsh. “Piling refugees on trains in the hopes they go far, far away brings back memories of the darkest period in our continent,” he told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine in an apparent reference to the mass deportations of the Second World War.

ROME — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Sep. 13, 2015 6:47AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Sep. 14, 2015 6:56AM EDT