Hungary's Orban says his party could quit EU's conservative bloc

BUDAPEST/WARSAW (Reuters) - Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Friday his nationalist Fidesz party may leave Europe’s main conservative group over a row about anti-EU election campaigning.

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary, February 10, 2019. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo

On Tuesday, the head of the group, the European People’s Party (EPP), German politician Manfred Weber, demanded Fidesz take down billboards attacking European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, part of its campaign for May’s European Parliament elections in which populists and euroskeptics are well positioned to make gains.

Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said Fidesz wanted to stay in the EPP, the most powerful conservative group in the European Parliament, and the posters would be replaced by others touting Orban’s plans to increase Hungary’s birth rate.

Orban told public radio he wanted to move the pro-EU EPP toward a more anti-immigration platform, and raised the prospect of Fidesz quitting the group, which will meet on March 20 to discuss the matter.

“The debate may end up with (Fidesz) finding its place not within but outside the People’s Party,” Orban said.

Weber, a member of the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, told Bild newspaper he expected Fidesz to apologize to EPP members and called for Orban to end his anti-EU campaigns.

Orban did not apologize. He said he had talked with both Juncker and Weber on Thursday and on Sunday he planned to visit Poland, a regional ally governed by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is not in the EPP.

“If we need to start something new ... then obviously the first place to hold talks will be in Poland,” Orban said.

Weber said it was up to Orban to decide which political family he wants to be in.

“Viktor Orban in the last years and months and days always was clearly committed that he wants to stay inside the European People’s Party,” Weber said.

“We are a political family of values, we are a political family that has common ideas, and everybody who is based on these common ideas can stay ... others can leave or must be kicked out if this is not accepted anymore.”

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is running for the European Parliament, said expelling Fidesz would play into the hands of the EPP’s opponents.

“Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s party) cannot vote in favour of the exclusion of Orban, who has been a dear friend of mine for many years,” he said in a statement.

Additional reporting by Sandor Peto in Budapest and Gavin Jones in Rome; Editing by Robin Pomeroy