The Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, and the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, have said they were “walking down the same path” as they met to discuss forming a common anti-migration front they said would be opposed to the policies of the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
“We want to change Europe’s commission. We want to protect our borders. We are going to fight pro-migrant policies supported by Macron and [George] Soros,” Salvini said after the two met on Tuesday in Milan.
The talks between two of Europe’s most vocal hardline leaders followed a standoff with Brussels after Salvini, head of Italy’s far-right League, prevented 177 asylum seekers from disembarking from the coastguard ship Ubaldo Diciotti for almost a week as he called for guarantees that other EU member states would take most of them. Salvini announced his meeting with Orbán after the EU refused, saying he would discuss “alternative strategies” with the Hungarian prime minister.
“European elections are coming. We have to change a lot of things,” Orbán said. “There two sides at the moment in Europe. One is led by Macron, who is supporting migration. The other one is supported by countries who want to protect their borders. Hungary and Italy belong to the latter.”
It is not the first time that Salvini has attacked the French president, who in turn has shown no sympathy for the Italian interior minister. Macron in June said extremists in “neighbour” countries were betraying European values, pointing his finger at Salvini.
Orbán, whom Salvini has described as a political role model, has been among the most hostile to immigration in Europe and appears to be a natural ally for Salvini. His Fidesz party was re-elected in April promising to crack down on aid groups it said supported migrants.
“Hungary has shown that we can stop migrants on land. Salvini has shown migrants can be stopped at sea. We thank him for protecting Europe’s borders,” Orbán said.
“We must send migrants back to their countries. Brussels says we cannot do it. They also had said it was impossible to stop migrants on land, but we did it.”
The two leaders, despite sharing the same anti-migration platform, appear to disagree on the relocation of asylum seekers, however. Salvini is pushing for their distribution among EU nations, whereas Orbán stands with Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in saying no.
Orbán brushed off their differences as he prepared for the meeting. “Me and Salvini, we seem to share the same destiny. He is my hero,” he told reporters outside a restaurant where he had lunch in Milan.
He again described Salvini as a “hero” following their talks, saying he “could win the elections in Hungary if he would decide to run”.
Thousands of leftwing activists had gathered in Milan to protest against the two men.
The standoff over the Diciotti exposed tensions between Brussels and Rome with the Italian government threatening to suspend its EU budget contributions. Those stuck onboard were allowed to disembark on Saturday, with Ireland, Albania and the Italian church agreeing to take most of them.
The European commission said threats were unhelpful and called on all countries to find a solution to help the people onboard.
“The consequences of the Diciotti case and the way Italy is dealing with migration in general risks destabilising the equilibrium of a Europe that is still glued to its national interests,” said Massimiliano Panarari, a politics professor at Luiss University in Rome.
“Italy has become a laboratory of European populism and risks moving away not only from Europe, but also from western democracies and getting closer, together with Orbán’s Hungary, to [Russia’s Vladimir] Putin, who enjoys Salvini’s manifestations of sympathy.”
The meeting followed talks between the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, and his Czech counterpart, Andrej Babiš, who has opposed relocating refugees and migrants. Conte will also visit Moscow in October, Russian news agencies said on Tuesday.
Salvini was placed under investigation last week by Italian prosecutors from Agrigento, Sicily, for the potential abuse of office, kidnapping and illegal detention, relating to his refusal to allow those onboard the Diciotti to disembark.
Their release on Saturday will not stop the investigation into Salvini, who governs in coalition with the populist and anti-establishment Five Star Movement, after an election campaign this year in which he vowed to adopt tough polices on immigration.
Salvini has repeatedly said Italy would “no longer be Europe’s refugee camp”, and as first evidence of the new government’s hardline approach closed all Italian seaports to rescue boats operated by NGOs in the Mediterranean.