Traffickers should no longer be allowed to determine who comes to Europe, the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, has said, as he suggested thousands of police officers could be on standby in the Mediterranean ready to guard the continent’s borders.
“There are 700,000 illegal migrants – they need to go home,” said Babiš.
Last year, 618,780 non-EU citizens were found to be illegally present in the EU, according to Eurostat, a fall from a peak of more than 2 million in 2015.
A skilled businessman but relatively inexperienced politician, Babiš has become the pre-eminent political figure in the Czech Republic and easily won an election last October with promises to clean up and invest in the state, fight Brussels encroachment and combat illegal migration.
He formed his party, ANO, in 2013. Beyond the promise to end corruption, doubts have been raised about the party’s wider politics.
Since his election he has largely focused on domestic politics, but he is gradually spreading his wings, seeking to become an international figure by joining the debate on the future of Europe and broadly allying himself with Poland and Hungary.
Babiš and the leaders of those nations have rejected plans to increase the EU’s Frontex border force from 1,500 officers to 10,000, and are now pushing an alternative based on persuading potential migrants to stay in Africa.
Speaking to the Guardian before talks with Theresa May in London, he said the European commission’s plans for an expanded Frontex budget – €10bn (£8.84bn) over seven years – would be better spent on a Marshall plan for Africa, leaving the task of protecting Europe’s borders to nation states.
“These people should stay home and we should help them in Africa. The people around Syria … they would like to return home.” He added: “Smugglers made €5.7bn in 2016 and we have to stop it.”
Babiš , who expects the migration issue to dominate the European elections, said migrants should not be allowed into Europe without a work permit. He said the dividing line in Europe was between those who wanted to stop illegal migration and those who did not.
“They have their culture, we have our culture,” he said. “They have their values, but we want to keep [our] values.”
Babiš said it was up to the Polish and Hungarian people to judge the actions of their governments, and he cautioned the European commission against interference.
The numbers of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe from Turkey and north Africa peaked at more than a million in 2015, and fell dramatically after the EU and Turkey made a deal to return migrants who did not apply for asylum or whose claims were rejected.
The largest number of arrivals in 2016 and 2017 were to Italy – 180,000 and 119,000 respectively (the equivalent figure for this year is just above 20,000). More than a million successful asylum applications were made in Europe between 2014 and 2017, with Germany, France, Italy and Austria accepting the largest number of refugees.
At an EU summit in Salzburg in October, Babiš caused a stir by saying every EU leader favoured a second Brexit referendum. In the interview he repeated his personal plea for the UK to remain in the bloc. “If the result is yes, why not? Britain has always been an ally of the Czech Republic – you have similar views to us.”
But he added that a Brexit reversal looked unlikely– “perhaps it is not realistic any more” – since it had been ruled out by Theresa May.
He said he remained positive that an EU-UK deal was still achievable. “I understand the position of the prime minister is difficult politically, but there is only issue to be resolved – of the border [on the island of Ireland].”
Babiš said he hoped the UK would accept the logic of the EU’s position, and that a future relationship similar to that of Norway was achievable. Although he played down the chances of no deal, he said he was prepared to pass emergency legislation in the Czech Republic to prepare for such an event to ensure British citizens continued to have the same access to the Czech Republic.
Referring to criticism of his alleged conflicts of interest due to his media investments, and his willingness to draw links between European immigration and terrorism, Babiš said: “They print lies about me every day, but I cannot stop it.”