By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union executive accused Hungary's nationalist government on Monday of distorting the truth about immigration into the bloc, marking a further deterioration in their troubled relationship ahead of European Parliament elections in May.
The EU has long been critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's stance on migrants and record on democratic freedoms. He says the bloc has imperilled Europe's Christian civilisation by allowing mass immigration.
Orban has recently stepped up his anti-immigration campaign with billboards and inserts in state media vilifying European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros whom he accuses of being in cahoots to bring large numbers of Muslim immigrants into Europe.
"The Commission has been unambiguous about our opinion of the Hungarian government campaign that distorts the truth and seeks to paint a dark picture of a secret plot to drive more migration to Europe, allegedly," European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news briefing.
The Hungarian campaign has triggered renewed calls to expel Orban's ruling Fidesz party from the biggest group in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).
The EPP on Monday said it had received corresponding motions from 12 member parties in nine countries and will discuss suspending or excluding Fidesz on March 20.
The EPP's candidate to head the next European Commission, senior German lawmaker Manfred Weber, has said he no longer rules out expelling Fidesz. "I expect him to apologise and end the action," Weber told the German weekly Spiegel at the weekend.
But Orban, speaking to the German Welt am Sonntag weekly, dismissed those seeking the expulsion of Fidesz as "useful idiots" playing into the hands of the EPP's left-wing rivals.
His office published on its web site remarks by European leaders, as well as selected details of EU decisions on immigration, which Budapest says bolster its arguments.
"They want to manage migration, rather than halt it," it said, adding that Brussels was unlawfully seeking to force migrant quotas on Hungary. "We want a Europe which respects the rights of nation states, builds on its Christian values, protects its communities, and is also able to preserve its security in the long term."
Zoltan Novak, of Hungarian think-tank the Centre for Fair Political Analysis, said the spat formed part of the start of the European Parliament vote campaign. "He wants to be the antithesis to the mainstream elite," he said.
The EPP has 217 lawmakers in the 750-strong EU legislature, 12 of them from Fidesz. It is expected to remain the biggest faction in the new European Parliament but will most likely be weakened, surveys show.
The EU has been largely unsuccessful in taming Orban.
A probe launched in 2018 against Budapest for weakening the rule of law in the ex-communist country has proven largely ineffective beyond causing Hungary reputational damage.
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.
(Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest, Jan Strupczewski and Peter Maushagen in Brussels; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)