By Michael Nienaber
BERLIN (Reuters) - Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel rejected on Monday the idea of setting up transit zones on Germany's borders to filter out migrants who have little chance of gaining asylum, deepening a rift within Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition.
Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has become a magnet for economic migrants and war refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and it now expects from 800,000 to one million asylum seekers this year, twice as many as in any previous year.
The unprecedented influx has opened up divisions within the ruling coalition, with the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's conservatives demanding tougher measures such as transit zones at Germany's land borders to reduce the number of new arrivals.
Merkel, who also backs the transit zones, failed at the weekend to persuade Gabriel's center-left Social Democrats (SPD), junior partner in her coalition. The row has rocked her government and provoked rare criticism of her leadership both outside and within her conservative bloc.
Gabriel accused Merkel's Bavarian ally Horst Seehofer of making "unnecessary" demands and distracting from what he said were the "real challenges" in taking in and helping the refugees.
"In our view, the debate about so-called transit zones is a totally phoney debate," Gabriel said after a meeting of senior party members in Berlin.
As only very few of the new arrivals come from Balkan countries that are deemed safe, transit zones to filter out such economic migrants directly at the German border would have only a very limited impact on the total numbers, Gabriel said.
Also, European Union rules would allow such a step only in exceptional cases for a limited time, which would further reduce the actual impact of the move, he added.
Merkel, Gabriel and Seehofer are expected to meet again on Thursday to hammer out a compromise deal, but Gabriel said he would not support an accord just for the sake of coalition harmony.
"If there is no agreement, then there is no agreement," Gabriel said, adding that the government would do better to focus on other tasks such as speeding up asylum procedures and improving the integration of refugees.
Gabriel confirmed last week he wanted to be his party's candidate to run against Merkel for the job of chancellor in Germany's next federal election, due in 2017.
German media billed the weekend's fruitless coalition talks as a low point in Merkel's third term in office. The leading business daily Handelsblatt ran a headline on its front page saying: "The refugee crisis has become a government crisis".
(Editing by Gareth Jones)