Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister seen during an event. (Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg)

Macron Takes On Orban and Salvini Over Europe’s Populist Future

(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron joined a challenge issued by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, saying that Europe’s populist forces were right to see him as their “main opponent.”

Macron was speaking after Orban and Italy’s Matteo Salvini met in Milan on Tuesday evening to discuss creating a united front of Europe’s anti-immigrant political forces ahead of elections to the European Parliament next May. Orban singled out Macron, calling him leader of a “pro-migration” camp.

Macron Takes On Orban and Salvini Over Europe’s Populist Future

Macron, speaking in Denmark on Wednesday, said the populists are right to regard him as their chief adversary in the European Union.

“I won’t retreat in front of the nationalists and those preaching hatred,” Macron said in Copenhagen. “If they want to see me as their main opponent, they’re right.”

Next year’s European elections are emerging as a fundamental clash between Orban and Salvini’s form of “illiberal” nationalist politics against the liberal establishment forces. The Parliament will have a key role in approving the new European Commission, the EU’s executive, meaning that the contest has the potential to determine the future direction of all Europe.

During their meeting, Orban and Salvini, the deputy prime minister and League leader, talked about a political alliance at EU level which would “join different energies with a common goal,” and would “exclude the left-wing parties and bring to the fore the identities that our governments represent,” Salvini said.

Orban said he wants to spread his anti-immigrant views within the European People’s Party -- the largest bloc in the current parliament that includes Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. “We want to change a lot of things,” Orban said. “We need a new commission and a new parliament that take a definite stance in favor of defending frontiers and stopping migration.”

The two criticized Europe’s traditional parties and Orban lashed out at Macron, accusing him of leading pro-migration forces and trying to tear the EPP apart.

Nationalists Unite

This is not the first time Orban and Salvini have called for more unity among like-minded parties. Orban, who has governed Hungary for the past eight years and was reelected in April, sees his party as opposed to multiculturalism and liberal values. He said in July that nationalist forces needed to unite to fight immigration. Salvini, who League party won power after a campaign against immigration, called for a “League of Leagues that will put together all the free, sovereign movements” in various countries.

Orban has often attacked the European Union on issues varying from sanctions on Russia to immigration policies. In June, the Hungarian parliament passed a law that imposes jail terms of up to a year for anyone helping immigrants enter the country.

Salvini has also clashed with the EU over migration. Tensions came to a head last week when he prevented 177 migrants rescued by an Italian coast guard ship from disembarking until other EU member states agreed to take some. He and other members of Italy’s governing coalition have threatened to suspend EU budget contributions if the burden of migrants isn’t shared.

Odd Couple

Salvini’s call for other EU countries to help with migrants makes him an unlikely friend of Orban, who has refused EU requests to relocate migrants to his country and reiterated his stance on Tuesday. Still, Salvini praised Orban for defending Europe’s borders. Before the Milan meeting, Orban told a group of journalists that Salvini is his “hero” for his hardline views.

The two leaders had to wade through police and onlookers to reach the government offices where their meeting was held. A large group of demonstrators stood outside blocking nearby streets, dancing, chanting and waving rainbow colored flags with the word “peace” and posters saying “let’s stay united.”

“We need to resist against an idea of Europe of hate and barbed wire, which is what Salvini and Orban propose,” Emanuele Fiano, a prominent member of the opposition Democratic Party said on television from the demonstration in Milan. Orban and Salvini are “the maximum possible contradiction,” whose friendship is based on their “not helping each other” on migrants.

Salvini was placed under investigation by Italian prosecutors last week for potential abuse of office, kidnapping, and illegal detention relating to his refusal to let the migrants on the coast guard ship ashore.

The Italian minister’s activism has strained relations with parts of his governing coalition. Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, criticized Orban on Tuesday in an interview in La Stampa for refusing to share the burden of migrants.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.