By Michael Nienaber and Joseph Nasr
BERLIN (Reuters) - A migrant policy deal struck by Chancellor Angela Merkel to save the German government got a skeptical reception on Tuesday from her Social Democrat coalition partners, although Brussels said it appeared at first sight to comply with European law.
The center-right leader needs the backing of both her junior coalition partner and fellow European Union states if the plan is to succeed.
Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their long-time Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) allies agreed on Monday to set up special transit zones at the border with Austria where migrants already registered in other EU countries will be held and then sent back to the countries where they had registered first.
The plan appeared to settle a dispute between the two conservative parties that had threatened Merkel's three-month-old government. But a Forsa poll on Tuesday showed a majority of Germans to be unhappy about the agreement.
The Social Democrats, who rejected a similar plan three years ago, withheld their immediate consent and EU states must also agree to take migrants back.
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Social Democrat leader Andrea Nahles said the plan was worthless without bilateral deals with countries such as Italy and Austria.
"We have many open questions," said Nahles, whose lawmakers discussed the deal on Tuesday. Securing the consent of other EU countries was crucial, she said, adding: "That's why I consider the deal for now as an uncovered cheque."
Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the center-left party, stopped short of rejecting the deal, but told the Rheinische Post newspaper: "Our resolution stands: We don't want closed camps."
Justice Minister Katarina Barley, a fellow Social Democrat, also struck a critical tone. "This so-called agreement leaves more questions open than it answers," she told Funke media group.
Barley added that the coalition agreement, which does not include the introduction of special transit zones at the border, would form the basis for any government action.
However, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker responded positively to the deal. "I have not studied it in detail but at first glance - and I have asked the legal services to look at it - it seems to me to be in line with the law," Juncker told a news conference in Strasbourg.
Austria, the main entry point for migrants into Germany, said it would take measures to protect its own southern borders if Berlin went ahead with the transit zones. It fears that tighter border controls by its northern neighbor could raise the number of migrants on its own soil.
The new policy is a compromise that allowed Merkel and CSU head Horst Seehofer to defuse their confrontation.
Seehofer, who is also German interior minister and wanted tighter national border controls, had threatened to resign, then delayed a decision and now says he will remain in the cabinet.
He said he had spoken to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz by phone. "I have the impression that he is interested in a sensible solution," Seehofer said before a party meeting.
The Austrian chancellery confirmed that Seehofer would meet Kurz and his counterpart Herbert Kickl on Thursday.
Seehofer and Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini spoke by phone and agreed to meet for bilateral talks before a summit of interior ministers in Innsbruck on July 11.
"We discussed common solutions to fight clandestine immigration between one European Union country and another and the protection of Europe's exterior borders," Salvini said in a statement.
The Forsa poll showed that 54 percent of Germans would have favored a CDU-CSU split over the migration question while 38 percent welcomed the agreement and the unity of the two sister parties.
More than two-thirds said Seehofer should have resigned as interior minister while only one out of four respondents welcomed his decision to stay in office.
The row underlined the deep divisions that remain within Europe on how to deal with the migrants who have arrived in the last three years.
Numbers are sharply down from the peak three years ago. However, there has been a surge in departures from Libya of migrants trying to cross by sea to Italy.
Merkel, Seehofer, Nahles and senior members of their parties met in the chancellery on Tuesday evening to discuss the plan.
The idea of setting up centers at the border with Austria to process migrants is not new. At the height of the record influx of migrants in 2015, Merkel agreed to a CSU proposal to set up transit zones at the border to filter out migrants who have little chance of gaining asylum.
The plan was dropped after opposition from the Social Democrats. They argued such zones would not limit the number of migrants given that most were fleeing wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan and therefore entitled to asylum in Germany.
However, there seems to be little appetite among Social Democrats leaders to oppose the plan this time and trigger another crisis.
Some Social Democrats accuse the CSU of wanting to appear tough on immigration before a regional election in Bavaria in October where the conservatives are expected to lose voters to the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany.
About 68,000 people applied for asylum in Germany in the first five months of this year, compared with a record of 745,500 in the whole of 2016. About 18,000 had already applied for asylum in another EU country.
(Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers in Berlin, Francois Murphy in Vienna, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Steve Scherer in Rome; editing by David Stamp and Andrew Roche)