Austria says it's prepared to 'protect' its southern border

Austria's government and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition partners raised questions Tuesday about a deal to end a crisis over migration policy, with Vienna saying it is prepared to take unspecified measures to "protect" Austria's southern border if migrants are its neighbor turns back migrants.

In a compromise Monday night to end a dispute that had ballooned into a threat to Merkel's government, her party and its Bavarian conservative ally called for "transit centers" on the German-Austrian border.

The idea is that migrants who previously applied for asylum in another European Union country would be returned there from those centers under as-yet unconcluded agreements with other European governments. The deal states that, in cases where the country concerned refuses, migrants would be turned back at the border "on the basis of an agreement" with Austria.

Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its ally, Bavaria's Christian Social Union, govern Germany in a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats, who have yet to sign on to the deal.

The Social Democrats' leader, Andrea Nahles, said the deal contains "uncovered checks," stressing that there must be an agreement with Austria or with Italy — where many refugees and other migrants headed for Germany land in Europe. Her party also is mulling whether to accept the "transit centers."

The Austrian government, meanwhile, called for quick clarification of the German government's position and said it was prepared for all scenarios. The Austria Press Agency reported that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, his vice chancellor and interior minister said the German agreement suggests that "Germany wants to take national measures to tackle migration flows."

If that becomes the German government's position, they said Austria "is prepared in particular to take measures to protect our southern borders" with Italy and Slovenia.

Germany has conducted some identification checks on its border with Austria since 2015, an exception granted to Germany and various other countries by the EU under the rules of Europe's passport-free travel area. The deal doesn't change that state of affairs.

Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, the CSU leader, argued for weeks over the latter's proposal to turn back some migrants unilaterally at the German border. Merkel insisted on seeking agreements with other countries, keen to prevent a cascade of unilateral decisions that would further fray European unity.

Seehofer said he spoke to Kurz by phone Tuesday morning and wants to travel to Vienna "as soon as possible." He said he has the impression that Kurz "is interested in sensible solution." Seehofer added that he also plans to talk with Italian authorities.