Austria unveiled a plan Wednesday to cap the number of new asylum seekers it will take in coming years, prompting reactions by politicians across Europe and highlighting a divide in how governments plan to handle a record influx of refugees.

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel continued to push forward with an open-door migration policy for her country, criticizing Austria for capping the number of new asylum seekers, German President Joachim Gauck said that Europe will likely need additional measures to limit immigration.

Meanwhile, European Parliament President Martin Schulz warned that Wednesday's move by Austria was unlikely to be effective, but the Austria plan prompted Serbia to close its borders to immigrants unless they are bound for Austria or Germany.

The contrasting positions on how to handle migration highlight diverging policies across Europe, where a record number of refugees hope they can head to escape conflicts in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

But the massive influx has led to growing tension across Europe, with countries closing borders, introducing border controls and building walls to keep migration at bay. Against this backdrop, a coordinated plan across the continent is still missing.

The European Union and European governments collectively failed at handling the refugee crisis in 2015, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said in a report on European migration Tuesday.

Austria's decision to limit refugee numbers to 37,500 this year - a sharp drop from the 120,000 asylum claims the Alpine country was expecting this year - will likely complicate negotiations with Turkey later this week, where the brunt of immigrants enter Europe, Merkel said Wednesday.

The Austrian plan will decrease the limit of arrivals each year until it reaches 25,000 for the first half of 2019.

Rather than limiting the number of refugees, Merkel - who was under attack Wednesday during a visit to the Christian Social Union party, the sister party to her Christian Democrats and one that has been pushing hard for controls on immigration inflows - stressed that a fairer distribution of refugees across the European Union was needed.

While Merkel has promised to bring the number of arrivals in her country down, she has defied public criticism by opposing an upper limit.

Gauck took a different stance than his chancellor, saying European countries might have to set up additional measures to limit immigration.

Gauck said he expected "that several regulation and limitation measures would take effect this year."

Curbing immigration is a necessary tool for European countries to consider because it would secure acceptance for migrants among their citizens. The president - who holds a largely ceremonial role - made his comments in a highly anticipated keynote speech on the first day of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

While countries had a duty to help refugees, limiting immigration was not unethical if it served this purpose, Gauck told the assembled global leaders and business executives.

"If democrats would not talk about limitations, we would leave the discussion to populists and xenophobes," argued Gauck.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz warned that Wednesday's move by Austria was unlikely to curb migration flows.

"It will certainly prevent nobody fleeing the Islamic State or the barrel bombs of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad from coming, just because somebody says we now have an upper limit," Schulz noted.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann acknowledged that his new plan was a "less than ideal solution." 

At the same time, he said it was also meant as "wake-up call" for the European Union.

In response to the Austrian plan, Serbia, which lies on the main path through the Balkan for migrants seeking to reach Western Europe, said it will stop all migrants from transiting its territory unless they say they are refugees who plan to ask for shelter in Austria or Germany.

“Based on the decision of the Austrian government ... [Serbia will] not allow migrants to continue unless they state intent to seek asylum in the territory of Austria and Germany,” Serbian Welfare Minister Aleksandar Vulin told reporters Wednesday in a migrant reception centre.

Effective “as of today,” the measure will be implemented on the border with Macedonia, he said, elaborating that a column will be added to the registration form asking migrants where they intend to seek asylum.

Merkel, who is still seeking a European solution to the migration problem, stressed that there are several opportunities to coordinate policies in the coming weeks.

She pointed towards talks with Turkey on Friday, next week's international donor conference on the Middle East, and February's European Union leaders summit as opportunities to map out a solution.

Related stories

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.