By Thomas Escritt and Aleksandar Vasovic
BELGRADE (Reuters) – Flows of migrants seeking safety in Europe via the Balkans could swell to the levels seen last autumn, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Monday, warning Brussels of conflicts to come if it sought to prevent Hungary from defending its borders.
Speaking after a meeting in Belgrade with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic, Orban also said an upcoming referendum on whether to accept Europe-wide asylum quotas would strengthen his hand in upcoming legal disputes with Brussels.
“The very moment when it became impossible to cross into Europe by sea, the Balkan route swelled up again, and we have no reason to believe the same won’t happen this year,” Orban told reporters at a press conference, offering Serbia help to secure its borders.
Last year, vast flows of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa stretched authorities around the continent as they struggled to deal with Europe’s largest migrant flows since World War Two.
Over the summer, many migrants have attempted the sea crossing from North Africa to countries such as Italy. But as autumn brings more unsettled seas, the land route through the Balkans may see a revival of activity.
The migration crisis fueled has support for anti-immigration and anti-EU populists in many countries.
Orban, Hungary’s prime minister since 2010, has been at the forefront of opposition in Europe to the humanitarian position taken by Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, who has said Europe has an obligation to take in refugees.
“We don’t want to change the character of our country,” Orban said. “We want to remain Hungarian, to keep our religious and ethnic composition. That view isn’t popular in Europe nowadays, at least among politicians.”
A clear referendum result would help to convey that message to Brussels, he said. “They want to force rules on member states that are in conflict with their interests, including Hungary’s. We are preparing for a conflict,” he added.
Vucic welcomed offers of Hungarian support to police its borders. An earlier agreement to deploy Hungarian police officers to Serbia’s border with Macedonia would be extended to the Bulgarian border, he said.
“Every help in terms of technical assets and manpower is welcome,” Vucic said.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt and Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Toby Chopra)