Salvini and Orban ready anti-migrant fight ahead of EU elections

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (R) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban join togeether in an anti-migrant camp ahead of next year's European parliament elections (AFP Photo/MARCO BERTORELLO)
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Rome (AFP) - Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini launched Tuesday an anti-migration manifesto aiming at next year's European parliament elections, and countering their opposing camp led by the French president.

"There are currently two camps in Europe and one is headed by (Emmanuel) Macron," Orban said at a press conference after holding talks with Salvini in Milan.

"He is at the head of the political forces supporting immigration. On the other hand, we want to stop illegal immigration."

EU countries are expected to go to the polls in May, and Salvini has aligned himself with the right-wing "Visegrad" countries: the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria and Hungary.

Salvini's meeting with Orban came shortly after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's more low-key summit with his Czech counterpart Andrej Babis, which also focused on migration.

"At the heart of the talks between the two prime ministers was a safer and fairer Europe as a common objective to work towards ... beginning with the key issues for European citizens: the fight against illegal migration, growth and work, and socio-economic stability," a government statement said.

- 'No backwards steps' -

Salvini has repeatedly shot barbs at the European Union over immigration, accusing the bloc of having abandoned Italy as it struggles to deal with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have arrived on its shores since 2013.

His antagonistic stance has drawn support from key figures of Europe's hard-right including Marine Le Pen and Orban, who confirmed Italian media reports that he called Salvini "my hero and fellow traveller".

Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister and leader of the nationalist League party, has taken pot shots at "globalists" like billionaire Hungarian philanthropist George Soros -- one of Orban's targets -- and Macron.

The French president has sharply criticised countries who refuse to cooperate on migration saying those who benefit from the EU but "claim national self-interest when it comes to the issue of migrants" should have sanctions imposed on them.

Tuesday's meeting in Milan came just days after Italy's latest standoff with Brussels over immigration, which led to scores of migrants being held on a coastguard boat moored in Sicily for days until a relocation deal was struck enabling them to disembark on Sunday.

Salvini said he would continue to refuse NGO ships with migrants access to Italian ports, and brushed off an investigation into "abduction" launched against him by prosecutors in Sicily.

"They won't make me take one step backwards," he said.

Orban told reporters that he would not allow migrants to enter Hungary, and insisted that help should be "taken to where people are in trouble, rather than bring trouble to us".

"We need a new European Commission that is committed to defence of Europe's borders," he said.

- Conflict -

Migration is a hot-button issue in Italy. According to a study carried out by research body Instituto Cattaneo, 70 percent of Italians believe that the percentage of non-EU immigrants among Italy's population of 60.5 million is nearly four times that recorded by Eurostat -- seven percent as of the start of 2017.

Salvini's meeting with fellow hardliner Orban has exposed fractures in Italy's ruling coalition, which joins Salvini's League with the populist Five Star Movement.

His fellow Deputy PM and Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio has stood alongside Salvini in opposition to Europe's handling of migration from Libya.

Last week he threatened to pull Italy's EU budget contributions if more help didn't arrive and backed Salvini as he waited for nearly a week before allowing 140 migrants to disembark a coastguard ship docked at the Sicilian port of Catania.

But Five Star includes within its broad political ranks a left-wing faction uncomfortable with the party's alliance with Salvini.

Di Maio blasted Orban on Monday for putting up "barbed-wire barriers" and refusing to do his part to help with migrants.

"As far as I'm concerned countries that refuse allocation of migrants should not be entitled to European funding," Di Maio said in an interview in daily La Stampa.

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