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4th Dec 2021

Macron picks up glove to fight Orban and allies

  • (Photo: Consilium)

The race for the heart of Europe ahead of next year's European Parliament elections has begun.

French president Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday (29 August) accepted a challenge by Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and Italy's interior minister Matteo Salvini, saying that Europe's populist forces were right to see him as their "main opponent".

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"I won't retreat in front of the nationalists and those preaching hatred," Macron told press on a visit to Copenhagen. "If they want to see me as their main opponent, they're right," the pro-Europe politician said.

Italy's Salvini hit back quickly on Wednesday, saying that opinion polls indicated that Macron's real enemies were the French people.

"Instead of giving lectures to other governments, he [Macron] should throw open his own borders, starting from the one at Ventimiglia [with Italy]," Salvini said, according to Italian news agency Ansa.

Macron spoke after Orban met Salvini in Milan on Tuesday (28 August) and the two talked about creating a united political front of anti-migrant forces ahead of the European Parliament (EP) elections next May.

EPP theatre

Hungary's illiberal leader said there were two camps in the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest group in the EU parliament, to which he belongs.

France was the leader of the "pro-migration" camp, while Hungary "wanted to stop illegal migration", Orban said, according to Hungarian news wire MTI.

He said he wanted his and Salvini's "position to become the general one in the EPP".

Orban also claimed that Macron's planned to "blow up" the centre-right bloc.

The EPP has emerged as a theatre of conflict between liberal, pro-European, establishment forces and populist-nationalist eurosceptic ones as Europe prepares for the vote.

Orban's increasingly autocratic rule, government corruption, and hate campaigns have irked liberal-minded EPP members, especially from Nordic and Benelux countries.

But the EPP leadership has stood by its "enfant terrible" because it wants to retain Orban's 12 MEPs in its ranks.

It also recognises that his anti-migration stance has appealed to voters across Europe in recent years.

Meanwhile, Macron aims to build his own party in the EU parliament.

His officials have reached out across the political spectrum in the assembly, including to EPP deputies, to woo national delegations and MEPs.

Anti-migrant alliance

Wednesday's tit-for-tat exchange came after Orban and Salvini discussed a new European political alliance.

Orban said it would "join different energies with a common goal", and would "exclude the left-wing parties and brings to the fore the identities and values that our governments represent".

He added that he wanted to spread his anti-immigrant views within the EPP, which also includes German chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

He warned the EPP earlier in June that if it did not support his ideas, he could also splinter off in a new political formation.

Orban has called Salvini, who hails from the far-right END group in parliament, a "hero", but the two make uneasy bedfellows.

Hungary has refused to take in any migrants under EU schemes even though Italy has pushed for help.

But this underlines how transformative the common anti-migrant stance can be for right-wing, nationalist parties which have previously struggled to unite in the EP in the face of mainstream politics.

No solution

Macron, in a speech to French ambassadors on Monday (27 August), pointed to the opportunism of Italy and Hungary when it comes to benefitting from the EU, yet still leading a eurosceptic policy.

"Italy is against Europe when it doesn't show solidarity, but it is for the Europe of structural funds ... Viktor Orban's Hungary has never been against the Europe of structural funds, of common agriculture policy, but it is against Europe when it comes to holding grand speeches on Christianity," the French president said.

"These xenophobes bring no solutions to the problems they point at ... All those with a nationalistic or unilateralist voice agree to denounce Europe, but they rarely agree to find common solutions, including for themselves. The axes we are told about, bring no solution - none," Macron said, referring to an emerging alliance between Hungary, Italy, and Austria.

In Milan on Tuesday several hundred protestors demonstrated against Orban and the two politicians' hardline policies.

"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, according to Bloomberg.

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