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BREAKING NEWS

Hungary's ruling party wants to stay in European People's Party despite criticism

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BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling Fidesz party wants to remain in the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), it said on Tuesday, despite growing pressure within the European Parliament's biggest grouping to suspend or expel it.

Orban has long been at loggerheads with Brussels over his hardline stance on immigration and other issues and their feud is escalating ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

A feisty nationalist, Orban has launched a media campaign that frames the May elections as a choice between forces backing and opposing mass immigration, prompting criticism from the European Commission and from some in the EPP.

On Monday the EPP said it had received motions from 12 member parties in nine EU countries and would discuss suspending or excluding Fidesz on March 20.

"There is a debate under way within the European People's Party, focusing on the issue of immigration," Fidesz's press office said in an emailed response to questions about Monday's EPP announcement.

"We are ready for a debate and to represent our stance. Fidesz does not want to leave the (European) People's Party, our goal is for anti-immigration forces to gain strength within the EPP," it said.

Fidesz said it considered the defence of Europe's Christian values and halting migration more important than party discipline within the EPP grouping.

The EPP has 217 lawmakers in the 750-strong EU legislature, 12 of them from Fidesz. The EPP is expected to remain the biggest faction in the new European Parliament but will most likely be weakened, surveys show.

Far-right, populist parties are expected to perform well in the May elections.

Brussels is considering making access to EU budget funds from 2021 conditional on respecting democratic principles. Hungary and most other ex-communist EU members receive large sums from the budget for infrastructure and other projects.

A survey by pollster Zavecz Research measured support in Hungary for Fidesz at 32 percent in February, unchanged from January. The far-right Jobbik scored 10 percent, while the Socialists had 7 percent.

(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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