Berlin, Germany - The German and Greek leaders blasted Balkan countries for shutting their borders to migrants ahead of an EU ministers meeting Thursday, with Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras warning that the EU "has no future if it goes on like that".
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel said the closures are "neither sustainable nor lasting" in tackling Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II and would leave Greece bearing the burden of the influx.
Underlining the deep divisions cleaving the bloc, Merkel and Tsipras' reactions flew in the face of the response of EU President Donald Tusk, who welcomed the route closure as being part of a collective response of the 28-member EU.
The strong words came after Slovenia and Croatia barred entry to transiting migrants from Wednesday and Serbia indicated it would follow suit.
EU member Slovenia said it would allow in only migrants wishing to claim asylum there or those seeking entry "on humanitarian grounds and in accordance with the rules of the Schengen zone".
Prime Minister Miro Cerar said the move meant that "the (Balkan) route for illegal migrations no longer exists", while Tusk on Twitter called the decision "not a question of unilateral actions but common EU28 decision". "I thank Western Balkan countries for implementing part of EU's comprehensive strategy to deal with migration crisis," he wrote. Tsipras retorted on Twitter that Tusk should "focus efforts on implementing our common decisions and not encourage those who ignore them".
The EU has been locked in dispute over how to stem an unprecedented influx of migrants that reached more than a million in 2015, many from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and most aiming to reach wealthy Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.
Under pressure at home to reduce the influx, Merkel acknowledged that the western Balkan states' action "will obviously bring us fewer refugees, but they put Greece in a very difficult situation".
Her Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel noted that while some at home are "secretly pleased that the Balkan states... are doing Germany's dirty work", their actions would not help in the long term. Merkel is battling to avoid leaving Greece in the lurch as the number of migrants stranded there is still steadily growing.
Greek authorities said Thursday there were 41,973 asylum seekers in the country, including some 12,000 stuck at Idomeni on the closed Macedonian border.
Migrants also did not appear dissuaded by latest developments, and were still risking their lives to cross to Europe.
At least another five migrants, including a baby, drowned as they tried to sail from Turkey to Greece, the Dogan news agency reported on Thursday.
Merkel wants a comprehensive European deal with Turkey to stop asylum seekers from jumping on unseaworthy rubber boats to get to Europe.
The plan involves joint action with Ankara to tighten the EU's external borders, while also distributing refugees among EU members.
"If we do not manage to reach a deal with Turkey, then Greece cannot bear the burden for long," she told public radio MDR.
"That's why I am seeking a real European solution, that is, a solution for all 28 (EU members)," stressed Merkel, who was once vilified in Greece over her hardline push for austerity, but who is today standing firmly by Athens.
But the mooted Turkish deal is controversial, and ahead of an EU interior ministers meeting later Thursday, Vienna signaled its opposition.
"I am extremely critical. I am seriously wondering whether we are taking ourselves and our values seriously or if we are throwing them overboard," said Austria's interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, in a reference to concerns over human rights violations in Turkey.
The mooted Ankara-Brussels deal, discussed at an EU summit on Monday and due to be finalised on March 17-18, would see Turkey take back all illegal migrants landing in Greece.
Ankara proposed an arrangement under which the EU would resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey in exchange for every Syrian that Turkey takes from Greece, in a bid to reduce the incentive for people to board boats for Europe.
In return, Turkey wants six billion euros ($6.6 billion) in aid, visa-free access to Europe's passport-free Schengen zone and a speeding up of Ankara's efforts to join the EU.
Ankara's EU affairs minister Volkan Bozkir underlined Thursday however that the deal would not be retroactive, and would "not include the existing refugees on the Greek islands".

Meanwhile, the United Nations' human rights chief voiced alarm Thursday over a draft deal between the EU and Ankara that could see "illegal" collective expulsions of migrants from Greece to Turkey.
"The EU's draft arrangement with Turkey ... raises a number of very serious concerns, (including) the potential for collective and arbitrary expulsions, which are illegal," Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
"Border restrictions which do not permit determination of the circumstances of each individual violate international and European law," he said.
Zeid said he planned to discuss his concerns during a visit to Brussels early next week, ahead of a European Union summit on March 17-18, where the controversial deal is expected to be finalised.
The deal would among other things see Turkey take back all illegal migrants landing in Greece.
Under the plan, the EU would meanwhile resettle one Syrian refugee from camps in Turkey in exchange for every Syrian that Turkey takes from Greece, in a bid to reduce the incentive for people to board boats for Europe.
Zeid hailed the generosity displayed by countries like Germany and Greece as Europe tries to deal with its biggest migrant crisis since World War II.
But he lamented that "today, in violation of the fundamental principles of solidarity, human dignity and human rights, the race to repel these people is picking up momentum."
The EU has been locked in dispute over how to stem an unprecedented influx of migrants that has numbered more than a million since the start of 2015, many from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq and most aiming to reach wealthy Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.

"I must also reiterate my profound concern about restrictive measures such as erecting fences, denying people access to individualised procedures, and arbitrarily denying entry to people of specific nationalities," Zeid said.
"I am in addition concerned about measures to seize belongings from people who may have already suffered greatly, and to restrict them from bringing in family members," he said.
His comments came as EU interior ministers were set to meet in Brussels Thursday to discuss the migrant crisis after western Balkan nations slammed shut their borders, and to discuss the proposed deal with Turkey.