French President Emmanuel Macron upped his war of words with the nationalist leaders of Italy and Hungary on Wednesday, saying they were right to see him as their “main opponent” on migration.
His comment came after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italy’s far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini launched an anti-migration manifesto, namechecking Macron as their adversary.
“There are currently two camps in Europe and one is headed by Macron,” Orban told a press conference after talks with Salvini in Milan on Tuesday.
“He is at the head of the political forces supporting immigration. On the other hand, we want to stop illegal immigration.”
Macron has himself passed tougher legislation on illegal immigration but has blasted Italy and Hungary for maintaining an uncompromising stance on migrants while readily accepting EU development funding.
“I will give no ground to nationalists and those who spread words of hate. If they want to see me as their main opponent, they’re right,” he retorted on a trip to Copenhagen.
“In the coming days and months we will have to take far-reaching decisions on migration which will require a serious and responsible attitude, with a genuine policy both towards countries of origin and internally,” he added.
“That is not what Mr. Orban and Salvini are proposing.”
EU leaders are set to meet on September 20 in the Austrian city of Salzburg to discuss migration, an issue that has bitterly divided the bloc.
While the number of people crossing the Mediterranean is far lower than at its peak three years ago, Italy’s new populist government is taking a hardline stance, turning away ships full of rescued migrants.
Salvini has repeatedly accusing the EU of having abandoned Italy, where more than 700,000 migrants have arrived from Libya since 2013.
In the latest standoff, Rome has threatened to cut its annual contribution to the EU budget, triggering a warning of sanctions from Brussels and threats that it would be in breach of treaties.
Macron is on a trip to Denmark and Finland hoping to rally support for ambitious reforms that would boost EU integration, striking a starkly different tone from Orban and Salvini.
On Monday he made the case for a closer Europe in the face of rising nationalism, charging that Hungary and Italy’s anti-EU rhetoric vanished when it came to accepting development aid from the bloc.
“There is a clear approach of European opportunism while claiming to be nationalist,” he said, calling out Orban by name.
The heated exchanges come as Europe gears up for EU parliamentary elections next May when migration is likely to be a major campaign issue.