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Hungary's Orban asks European conservatives not to expel his party

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Hungary's Orban asks European conservatives not to expel his party
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his annual state of the nation speech in Budapest, Hungary, February 10, 2019. Banner reads "Hungary first!" REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo/File Photo   -   Copyright  Bernadett Szabo(Reuters)
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By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has written to European politicians who have called for the expulsion of his Fidesz party from the main European conservative group, apologising for offensive language but maintaining his political positions.

Thirteen conservative parties have demanded Fidesz be expelled from the European People’s Party over an anti-immigration campaign that attacked EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a fellow EPP member, and U.S. philanthropist George Soros.

The EPP, made up of the main centre-right parties in most European countries, is the biggest group in the European parliament and expected to hold onto that position in European elections in May, allowing it to name Juncker’s successor.

According to a copy of one letter reviewed by Reuters on Thursday, Orban asked the leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats, Wouter Beke, to reconsider his proposal to eject Fidesz.

Beke was one of the first leaders of the EPP to ask for Fidesz to be expelled, saying on Feb. 28 that Orban’s transgressions were irredeemable. By early March, 13 parties had lined up behind the proposal.

A Hungarian government spokesman said similar letters were sent to every party that joined in the call to expel Fidesz.

“It is no secret that there are serious disagreements… on the issue of migration, the protection of Christian culture and the future of Europe,” Orban wrote. “It is also no secret that we do not wish to change our position on these issues.”

“Yet I do not consider it reasonable to solve such disagreements by expelling a party from our political family. I would therefore respectfully like to ask you to reconsider your proposal for expulsion, if possible.”

The EPP’s Parliament group leader and candidate to succeed Juncker, German politician Manfred Weber, said an apology from Orban for offending fellow EPP members was a condition for staying in the group.

Orban apologised for a remark he made in a March 3 interview with German weekly Welt am Sonntag, where he called his critics “useful idiots”.

“This is in fact a quote from Lenin, with which I intended to criticise a certain policy and not certain politicians,” he wrote. “I would like to hereby express my apologies if you found my quote personally offensive.”

He did not apologise for his EU politics in general.

The European Union has long criticised Orban and Fidesz over policies that Brussels says threaten the rule of law in Hungary by imposing ruling party control over the judiciary, media and other institutions. Fidesz rejects this criticism.

Many European politicians also reject Orban’s history of personal attacks on Soros, who is Jewish, as motivated by xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Fidesz also rejects the anti-Semitism charges and proclaims zero tolerance on hatred.

Fidesz says the Hungarian-born, U.S.-based financier, long a supporter of liberal causes, is plotting to destroy Christian civilisation by bringing Muslims to Europe, in cahoots with Juncker. Weber has demanded Fidesz allow a university founded by Soros to continue operating in Hungary; the university says it will be forced to leave because of measures adopted by Fidesz.

Anti-establishment and anti-immigrant parties are forecast to surge in the May European elections, often at the expense of older conservative parties such as those that form the EPP.

(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Peter Graff)

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