By Sabine Siebold
BRDO, Slovenia (Reuters) - Slovenia's prime minister said on Friday Hungarian leader Viktor Orban must be allowed to express his ideas about the European Union's future, warning that the bloc would "continue to shrink" if people are excluded from the debate.
Janez Jansa's comments were a further sign of a growing alliance between the nationalist leaders of Slovenia, Hungary and Poland that is worrying more liberal countries in the EU.
Orban faced criticism at an EU summit last week over a Hungarian law banning schools from using materials seen as promoting homosexuality, with French President Emmanuel Macron referring to a fundamental "East-West divide"..
Along with Poland's prime minister, Jansa was the only EU leader to back the Hungarian prime minister over the LGBT law at the summit, diplomats said. Like Orban, he has also clashed with Brussels over media freedoms.
"I think that he has the right to explain how he envisages the future of the European Union," Jansa, whose country took over the rotating EU presidency on July 1, told reporters at Brdo, an estate near the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.
"If the debate on the future of the European Union excludes people in advance, then I think that the European Union will indeed continue to shrink," he said, in an indirect reference to Britain's departure from the bloc last year.
Jansa appeared not to be referring to any incident in which Orban was prevented from expressing his views, but rather to the increasing mistrust of him in western European capitals.
He said differences between EU countries due to their different traditions and cultures must be respected.
"So if you now judge a person based on imaginary European values which everyone perceives differently, and dual standards are used, then I think that this is the fastest road to collapse," he said.
Jansa has also backed Poland in a battle with the executive European Commission over reforms of the judiciary, which EU officials say undermine the independence of Polish judges.
A meeting of EU commissioners this week in Brdo underscored Slovenia's increasingly strained relations with Brussels.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used a joint news conference with Jansa to call for "freedom of expression, diversity and equality" and said the rule of law and European values must be "always upheld".
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans declined to appear in a group photo with Jansa on Thursday, after Jansa questioned the neutrality of Slovenian judges by showing a picture of them in an informal group photo with other centre-left lawmakers.
(Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Editing by Timothy Heritage)