Hungary, Poland, Italy leaders seek new European right-wing core

* Hungary’s Fidesz quit European main conservative group

* Fidesz works on new conservative alliance of nationalists

* Potential alliance looks strong on paper, challenges mount

BUDAPEST/WARSAW, April 1 (Reuters) - Hungarian right-wing nationalist premier Viktor Orban and Polish ally Mateusz Morawiecki will meet Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s rightist League party, on Thursday to try to lay the groundwork for a new European political grouping.

Nationalists have tried and failed to unify their forces for a long time in Europe, partly due to clashing national interests and partly over big differences in views on external relationships such as ties with Russia.

Orban cultivates a very warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hungary has spoken up against EU sanctions on Russia, uses Russian oil, gas and nuclear power, and became the first EU country to use a Russian vaccine for COVID-19.

Salvini is also pro-Russia, as are some other parties in the potential alliance. But that may not sit well with the Poles and could cause unease among other potential allies, diplomats say.

“I was really surprised about this sort of ‘summit meeting’, even though Salvini is not in the Italian government,” a diplomat familiar with the matter told Reuters.

“There are too many issues like Russia still pending, and I do not see the three guys coming out tonight and announcing a common EU parliamentary group.”

Still, Orban is sensing political momemtum after his Fidesz party quit the mainstream conservative European People’s Party last month, and he says he sees potential in the grouping.

“When the relationship between Fidesz and the EPP ended, the situation clarified in Europe,” Orban told state television late on Wednesday.

Many Europeans reject immigration and multiculturalism, prefer a traditional family model and want to protect their national identity and consider national authority superior to European directives, Orban said.

“These voters have a fragmented representation in Europe,” he said. “We will try to remedy that.”

A PiS spokesman did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment. Salvini on Tuesday said he would join forces “if I had a wish.”

Orban aims to be a catalyst of European nationalists, and the numbers alone bear him out, analysts say.

Morawiecki’s PiS party is the main force of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), while Salvini’s League is the strongest member of the Identity and Democracy (ID) group that also includes Marine LePen’s National Rally from France.

Those parties together have 135 of the 705 European Parliament seats, with Fidesz adding another 12.

That could make them more of a force to be reckoned with in Europe if they can work out their differences, including those within the League in Italy, said Zoltan Novak of the Centre for Fair Political Analysis.

“The League is divided. Some people want to join the EPP,” he said. “But Salvini strongly backs Orban, and (the League) could help create a new pole in the European Parliament.” (Reporting by Reuters bureaux, writing by Marton Dunai @mdunai; Editing by Hugh Lawson)