By Joseph Nasr
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's interior minister said on Thursday he was confident centre-left coalition partners would back setting up border zone transit centres for migrants under a plan to defuse a dispute over asylum policy threatening to bring down the government.
The plan was agreed earlier this week to save conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel's fragile three-party coalition only three months after it had taken office.
In a speech to German lawmakers, Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU), defended the plan to hold migrants seeking to enter Germany from Austria in transit centres where those who had already registered elsewhere in the European Union would be sent back there.
The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), who must endorse the plan for it to go ahead, have voiced concern that the transit centres could amount to internment facilities for refugees that would violate their civil liberties.
Seehofer, echoing Merkel, said the centres would heed the German constitution, which allows new arrivals to be held for up to 48 hours at entry points if authorities believe there is an issue with how they entered Germany.
"We have reached an agreement after intensive debate. I am confident that we will reach an agreement with the SPD as well," he said. "Our constitution states that (migrants) must be returned within 48 hours and therefore they won't be closed facilities."
The three awkward partners in Merkel's "grand coalition" will meet on Thursday evening to discuss the plan, which also needs the consent of other European Union countries, particularly Austria and Italy, for it to work.
Merkel's coalition had teetered on the brink of collapse last month when Seehofer threatened to reimpose controls on Bavaria's border with Austria - part of the EU's Schengen passport-free travel zone - to turn back arriving migrants.
Annual migrant arrivals peaked in 2015 at over one million people, many of them fleeing Syria's war and therefore entitled to asylum, while others were trying to escape poverty. Arrivals have since dropped sharply to the tens of thousands.
In that light, some in the SPD accused Seehofer of sparking the coalition crisis for purely self-serving reasons - his CSU fears haemorrhaging voters to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany in a Bavaria's state election in October.
Seehofer planned later on Thursday to hold talks in Vienna with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has said his government would take measures to protect its southern borders - including with Italy where many migrants first set foot on EU soil - if Germany proceeded with the transit zones.
Austria fears that tighter German border controls would raise the number of migrants on its own territory.
Migration will also be prominent during talks in Berlin later on Thursday between Merkel and anti-immigrant Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has said he is ready to strike a bilateral deal with Germany to limit the migrant arrivals.
The immigration dispute between the Christian Democratic Merkel and her CSU allies mirrors the broader immigration challenge tearing at the cohesion of the European Union.
At a summit late last month, EU leaders agreed to share out refugees on a voluntary basis, create "controlled centres" to process asylum requests and share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea, a central demand of Italy, the main entry point.
The deal was criticised for its vagueness, leaving unclear how the burden would be fairly distributed when member states can choose not to help their peers.
Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland quickly repeated their refusal to take in any migrants. Orban has been a caustic critic of Merkel's previous open-door policy on migration, branding it a threat to Christian culture in Europe.
(Additional reporting by Tom Koerkemeir and Michael Nienaber, editing by Mark Heinrich)