Fed up of waiting for Brussels to act, countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans are building an anti-migrant fortress bloc with Hungary's Viktor Orbán as the architect.
BERLIN — Europe's migration situation is about to escalate — and it's taking the whole continent with it.
The recent influx of would-be refugees are putting pressure on governments in eastern and southeastern Europe in a way not seen since the end of communism. Their voting populations will now decide if their leaders made the right decision in wanting to join the European Union.
Eastern leaders increasingly complain about the functional failure of the public-policy machine in Brussels, as well as Germany's indecisiveness over policies to limit the entry of refugees.
And so the conditions are ripe for a strongman like Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to take on the role as a sort of "European anti-emperor." Neither Slovenia nor Poland share Orban's sympathy with Vladimir Putin's Russia, but they are united in wanting to push back on the migrant flow coming in from the east.
Over the last year, more than a million people from the Middle East have arrived in Europe, mainly Syrian civil war refugees. They were mostly passing through Turkey and Greece, in order to get to the EU via the Balkan states. Germany accepted all of them, which attracted even more.
Initial eastern European fears quickly blew over, when they understood that none of the newcomers actually wanted to stay in those countries, choosing instead to move on quickly to final destinations like Germany, Austria and Sweden. But now those countries are setting new limits of their own.
Everywhere border controls are being intensified, fences are going up. Only Afghans, Syrians end Iraqis will pass, if they promise that Germany is their ultimate destination. So that leaves East Europeans distancing themselves from what they say is a weak-minded EU, and building their own higher walls and fences.
Is the East drifting ever further away from the liberal West? Not yet. First, there's one thing that needs to be taken care of: East Europeans fear that if Germany says "stop," thousands of rejected and hopeless refugees will accumulate at their borders, throwing their countries back into chaos.
German authorities have been discussing a Balkan migrant emergency scenario for weeks. The fear is a domino effect in the face of new limits in the West, which could worsen humanitarian conditions and might even lead to a storming of the borders.
The Balkan states becoming a dead end could lead to panic and chaos among migrants and authorities. We can already see the first signs of a "closing time" psychology since Austria instituted limits on refugees last month, with officials in Slovenia and Macedonia reporting that the overall number of migrants had significantly increased.
In the northeastern Slovenian city of Kidricevo, Bostiia 41, lights a cigarette in front of a local pub. "They want to impose 4,000 of these Muslims on us," he says, his friends nodding in agreement. "We don't want this Islamic imperialism. We are Christians and we want to remain Christians. Let them build their mosques somewhere else."
Bostiia proudly shows pictures of shields they designed for a recent demonstration against a planned refugees asylum center nearby. On the shields, you can read "Rapefugees Not Welcome."
This is something entirely new in Slovenia. The little state has always been a model student among the EU newcomers in the east.
In Serbia's capital of Belgrade at least 50 people were camping in front of the bus terminal on a recent icy winter night. A 29-year old named Ibrahim from Pakistan points to his backpack with the black-red-golden flag and says, in broken English: "Germany's the best country."
Rados Durovic drinks hot tea, against the same Serbian cold. What happens if Germany closes its borders? "Hell, that's what will happen. Then our whole country will become one big refugees asylum center. The government can't handle this. And they can't tell that the population either."
Frankly speaking, there aren't many options anyway. The refugees' journey is like a desperate version of musical chairs. It goes on and on, but once the music stops, everybody needs to quickly find a place to stay. If Germany rejects refugees, so will Croatia.
Those remaining in the country are those who happen to be there when the borders close. This might lead to complications. When Hungary closed its borders, Croatia followed suit by closing its border to Serbia. In case of borders closing between Serbia and Slovenia, and the possibility of people being stuck in Croatia, Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar VuÄiÄ‡ has already declared that they won't take anyone back.
Now the barbed wire stretches as far as the eye can see along Hungary's border with Serbia. Except for the occasional patrol, there is not a single human being in sight, especially no refugee. Nobody even dares to think about passing through Hungary's border fence. Those who get caught go straight to prison. Only approximately 10 migrants per day enter the country illegally. The border fence seems to be the solution for Hungary's refugee crisis, for now. No sentimentalism, no "solidarity," only national interests.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's popularity ratings prove him right. And in Europe too he feels like a winner. He calls Austria's new border regime a "victory of reason."
"If a Schengen state doesn't meet its obligations, and won't accept any help either, there must not be any thought control," says Austria's Minister of the Interior Johanna Milk-Leitner. "The patience of most Europeans is coming to an end. Much has been said, now there is need for action. It's about securing Europe's stability, order and safety."
*K.Lazarevic, N.Mappes-Niediek, Silke Mülherr, B.Pancevski, CB Schiltz and D.-D.Böhmer contributed reporting.