ROME (Reuters) - The European Parliament's main centre-right group must forge an alliance with populist, nationalist groups after the forthcoming European Union elections and shun the left, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.
Orban's ruling Fidesz Party was suspended from the mainstream European People's Party (EPP) in March over its record on rule of law, freedom of the press and minorities rights.
Orban has denied violating any EU principles and has said he wants to remain part of the EPP. But in an interview with La Stampa newspaper published on Wednesday, he said the group had to drop its aversion to the far right.
"The EPP is preparing to commit suicide and wants to tie itself to the left," Orban said.
"We need to find another path via co-operation with Europe's right wing," he added, referring to a Europe-wide alliance of nationalist, anti-immigration parties that Matteo Salvini, head of Italy's far-right League, is trying to put together.
Voters in the 28-nation EU vote later this month to elect a new European Parliament. The EPP is expected to win the biggest share of seats but fall short of a majority, meaning it will need to form partnerships with other groups to control the chamber and shape the EU for years to come.
EPP leader Manfred Weber has made clear he prefers hooking up with pro-European Socialists and Liberals rather than the eurosceptic, sovereignist forces drawn to Salvini's flag.
"The nationalists will be our enemies," Weber said last month, launching his EU election campaign.
Salvini, who also serves as Italy's deputy prime minister and interior minister, is eager to win Orban over to his cause and is due to meet the Hungarian leader in Budapest on Thursday.
Orban has shown no sign of wanting to leave the EPP, which gives him mainstream respectability and influence that other European populists lack.
But he heaped praise on Salvini and applauded him for having drastically reduced the flow of migrants looking to leave Libya and reach Europe over the past year.
"For this, I think Salvini is the most important person in Europe today," he said.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Larry King)