Italy’s Matteo Salvini suffered a double setback on Thursday after Hungary’s Viktor Orban shunned an offer to join a new nationalist grouping in the European Parliament and one of his ministers was convicted of corruption.
Mr Salvini, deputy prime minister and head of the hard-right League party in Italy, had hoped he could recruit Hungary’s Fidesz party to a new European alliance of populist and nationalist parties, but these hopes appeared to be dashed by Mr Orban’s chief of staff in Budapest.
"We respect the Italian deputy prime minister and the Italian government and the result, which made the League Italy’s strongest party after the European Parliament election," Gergely Gulyas told a news conference.
"Nonetheless, I see not much chance for cooperation on a party level or in a joint parliamentary group.”
Mr Salvini’s League won 34 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections.
Enrolling Mr Orban in the pan-populist movement would have been a major coup for Mr Salvini, bringing in 14 more seats in the European parliament.
So far, Mr Salvini has enlisted the support of populist parties in Denmark, Germany, Finland and France, but Fidesz represented a big prize.
He is also hoping to persuade Nigel Farage and The Brexit Party to join the new grouping. Earlier this week, an MEP from the League said talks were going well and he was confident of a deal being done between the British and Italian parties. But Mr Farage played down those expectations.
“The fact that I’ve been spotted having a coffee with one of Salvini’s people does not mean we’re joining them,” he told The Telegraph earlier this week.
“The EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) has served us very well the last five years and I’m in Brussels working to make sure that the group remains.”
The blow came as Mr Salvini also dealt with the fall-out of what the Italian press has dubbed the "crazy expenses" scandal back home.
On Thursday he accepted the resignation of Edoardo Rixi after the junior minister for transport was found guilty of fiddling expenses and sentenced to nearly three and a half years in prison.
The minister was accused along with 19 others of claiming government money for lavish dinners, fresh oysters, lottery scratch cards and visits to amusement parks.
The accusations dated back to 2010-2012, when Mr Rixi was a member of the regional government of Liguria, and predated the formation of the current coalition, which came to power last summer.
The court in Genoa, which found the undersecretary guilty of embezzlement and fraud, also ordered €50,000 to be seized from him.
Mr Salvini said he had accepted the resignation “to protect him (Rixi) and the activity of the government from senseless attacks and scandals.”
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