Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban edged closer to Italy's far-right leader on Thursday, signaling he may break with the mainstream European conservative group following European Parliament elections in late May.
Orban's ruling Fidesz Party was suspended, but not expelled, in March from the European People's Party (EPP) over the deterioration in the rule of law in Hungary under his right-wing government.
The EPP, made up of center-right parties including Germany's Christian Democrats, is projected to keep its place as the European Parliament's biggest group following the May 23-26 elections. That would put the EPP in a pole position to choose the next European Commission president.
Orban has suggested that Fidesz may leave the EPP after the European Parliament elections, which polls suggest could see a surge in support for anti-immigrant, nationalist parties.
After talks in Budapest with Italy's hard-line Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the Hungarian leader said he was moving closer to formal cooperation.
"We are spectacularly, confidently, openly seeking cooperation with Salvini," Orban told journalists after talks with Salvini in Budapest. "Although what actual form that takes we will see… I am convinced that Europe needs an alliance of anti-immigration parties," he said.
Salvini sees anti-immigrant ally
Salvini, the leader of the far-right League, has sought to form a new nationalist group in the European Parliament and sees a natural ally in the anti-immigrant, euroskeptic Hungarian premier who shares his concern that Europe's Christian heritage will be lost to immigration.
"The positions of the Italian and Hungarian governments are identical on this issue" of migration, Salvini said at a press conference with his Hungarian counterpart, Sandor Pinter.
"We trust that the new Europe from May 27 will protect its external borders, be they land borders, as in Hungary, or sea borders, like in Italy," he said, referring to the day after European elections. "Because the problem is not to redistribute the migrants who are already here, but to prevent the arrival of thousands more of them."
Earlier in the day, Orban took Salvini on a tour of a razor-wire border fence on Hungary's southern border with Serbia that was erected in 2015 to keep out migrants and asylum-seekers trying to reach the heart of Europe.
Orban said Europe needs leaders opposed to immigration, and blamed the EPP for being "unreceptive" to anti-immigration right-wing parties.
"Whether we remain a member of the EPP depends on where the EPP is turning to," Orban said.
"We will decide on our own fate. If the EPP will bind themselves with the European left ... then it will be difficult to find our place in that cooperation," Orban said, referring to the informal EPP-Social Democrat grand coalition that has long dominated EU politics.
EPP dismisses Orban's influence
However, Orban's influence over the EPP is waning following Fidesz's suspension from the group triggered by his repeated assaults on EU institutions.
Manfred Weber, the EPP's lead candidate and currently a front-runner for the EU executive post, said Thursday that Orban can no longer dictate the group's policies.
"He has no impact any more on EPP policies," Weber said at a debate in response to a question about Orban's proposal for the EPP to cooperate with new far-right group led by Salvini.
On a trip to Niger, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave her full support for Weber's stance, saying "there will not be cooperation of any kind with right-wing parties after the election."
Salvini, meanwhile, has praised Orban for seeking "to enforce an aspect within the EPP which respects the history, the present and future of European peoples."
"I do not wish to intervene into that debate. I hope he will emerge victoriously," Salvini said.
Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD), Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France, the Austrian Freedom Party and right-wing parties in Finland and Denmark have expressed interest in Salvini's proposal for a new nationalist bloc.
cw/cmk (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)