Germany is to start deporting Syrian refugees after reinstating EU rules under which they must claim asylum in the first member state they enter.
But there was fresh discord in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government after it emerged Thomas de Maiziere, the interior minister, had ordered the measure without consulting colleagues.
It is the second time Mr de Maiziere has been accused of acting unilaterally in less than a week.
Mrs Merkel’s office had to intervene at the weekend to block an earlier unauthorised attempt by him to limit asylum for Syrians.
There is no indication that Mrs Merkel disapproves of the latest measure, but her coalition partners complained they were not even informed..
• Angela Merkel faces outright rebellion within her own party over refugee crisis
Several Social Democrat MPs reportedly thought the new order was a joke when it was announced on Tuesday evening.
“This is a communications disaster,” Burkhard Lischka, the party’s home affairs spokesman, said.
“We’ll look at Mr de Maiziere’s latest announcement objectively and evaluate it on its own merit, Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, the party’s deputy chairman, told Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.
“What does not work is the zero communication from the interior minister.”
The move also came as a surprise to MPs from Mrs Merkel’s own Christian Democrat party, with many learning of it for the first time from their smartphones in the middle of a party meeting, according to Spiegel magazine.
Mr de Maiziere defended himself, claiming the reinstatement of the EU’s controversial Dublin rules for Syrians was agreed last month.
Under the rules, refugees are supposed to claim asylum in the first EU member state they reach, and can be deported if they travel to another.
Germany’s decision to suspend the rules in the summer was the first public indication of the “open-door” refugee policy that has seen Mrs Merkel’s approval ratings plummet in recent weeks.
Critics have claimed the move encouraged many more asylum-seekers to travel to Europe.
The return to the rules will be seen as a sign Mrs Merkel is changing course, but it is expected to have little impact on the numbers streaming into Germany.
Privately, government officials expect as few as 3 per cent of the Syrian refugees in the country can be deported under the rules.
Most of those arriving Germany have never registered in other countries, meaning there is no evidence of where they first entered the EU.
And a longstanding German court ruling means the country cannot deport refugees to Greece, where the majority of Syrians first arrive, because of poor conditions for asylum-seekers there.
The Austrian government welcomed the move as a “return to sense”.
“This is the signal we’ve been waiting for in the past few weeks,” Johanna Mikl-Leitner, the Austrian interior minister, said.
She described it as “the turning point from a borderless welcoming culture to a culture of sense and proportion”.