The leading conservative candidate in next month's European Parliament elections says he would like to see Britain stay in the European Union and warned populist parties in Europe that they would have no place in the EUs largest political bloc unless they shared its vision of an "integrated and more ambitious Europe."
Manfred Weber, the center-right European Peoples Party candidate and front-runner to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, visited Greece on Tuesday to launch his campaign for the May 23-26 elections across the bloc.
His priorities include having tough controls on migration, creating an EU crime-fighting agency modeled on the FBI and ending EU accession talks with Turkey. He spoke in an interview with The Associated Press.
What about Brexit?
Weber said he respected the result of Britain's 2016 referendum to leave the EU. But he added "I personally would really enjoy and really would welcome if Great Britain would decide to stay."
The EU has given Britain until Oct. 31 to ratify an agreement or leave the 28-nation EU without a deal — granting an extension after U.K. lawmakers repeatedly rejected British Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal with the EU.
Several prominent European politicians have said they hoped Britain would eventually stay in the union, including European Council President Donald Tusk and Weber's main opponent in the May election, Social Democrat candidate Frans Timmermans.
Weber stressed, however, the final decision on Brexit remained with British people. "What we ask at the moment is simply to speed up (and) give us a clear indication what their plan for the future is, because we respect the outcome — we regret it — but we respect the outcome," Weber said.
How should Europe handle the populist threat?
Weber said the European Peoples Party, which groups many conservative national parties under its umbrella at the European Parliament, remains willing to part ways with member parties that do not share its vision for deepening European integration.
"The EPP is … a party of values of common ideas," he said. "That means for all of us who don't believe anymore in the idea of a more integrated and more ambitious Europe for the future — they are not any more our parties."
In March, the EPP suspended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party over the nationalist government's rejection of EU policies, but the party's European lawmakers were allowed to remain in the conservative parliamentary group.
Weber spoke after a visit to an ancient temple at Nemea in southern Greece.
Speaking later at his campaign launch in Athens, Weber argued that European conservatives were the true founders of the EU and would fight those who undermined it.
"In the year 2019, we will fight against those who want to destroy our Europe. The nationalists will be our enemies," he said.
Migration still a priority in Europe
Weber on Wednesday is traveling to Spain's autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the tip of North Africa, to underscore the party's commitment to maintaining tough controls on immigration.
Although the number of migrants and asylum-seekers trying to get into Europe has dropped sharply since the large influx in 2015, Weber said the issue remains a priority for the bloc.
He wants to speed up the increased deployment of EU border guards, creating standing force of 10,000 border guards by 2022, or five years earlier than planned.
"My experience, when I speak with people all over Europe, is that the migration debate — especially illegal migration — is still the dominant political issue," he said.
Weber helps other European Conservatives
The 46-year-old Weber, a relatively unknown politician outside his native Germany, focused the early stages of his campaign on countries where conservative allies are also facing national elections.
He began with Greece to voice support for Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the 51-year-old leader of the center-right New Democracy party, who is leading polls in an election year. In Spain, he will join the struggling 38-year-old conservative leader Pablo Casado in a country that is holding a general election on Sunday.
With Spain's conservatives splintering into three factions, Casado is trailing in opinion polls behind the Socialist incumbent, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Weber's office said he is also planning campaign stops in Lithuania and Malta over the next week.