Tory MEPs were not endorsing Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban by opposing EU measures to censure the nation, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has said.
Two thirds of the European Parliament backed a motion against Mr Orban’s government, which is accused of attacks on minorities and the rule of law.
Mr Gove told the BBC a “long-standing principle” was not to interfere in internal politics of other states.
He refused to condemn the right wing politician directly.
Mr Orban presents himself as the defender of Hungary and Europe against Muslim migrants.
Criticised for his authoritarian style, he has told Hungarian TV: “We will never allow Hungary to become a target country for immigrants.”
The European Parliament has voted to pursue unprecedented disciplinary action against Hungary over alleged breaches of the EU’s core values, which it denies.
After Wednesday’s vote, the Board of Deputies of British Jews said it was disappointed Conservative MEPs had voted in “defence” of Hungary, while the Muslim Council of Britain questioned whether the Tories were seeking backing for its position on Brexit in return.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell was among the Labour MPs to criticise the vote, urging Theresa May to “call out” her MEPs.
However, the Tory MEPs stressed they were not backing Mr Orban.
Mr Gove told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “It is not for me to rank a league table of EU leaders.
“It’s a long-standing principle of a number of MEPs from different countries and from different parties not to believe that the European Parliament should interfere in or censure the internal democracy of a particular country.”
Challenged to directly condemn Mr Orban, he said: “You or I might have particular views about other countries but the European Parliament and those within it – British MEPs and others – believe that’s the wrong way of expressing criticism.”
Who is Viktor Orban?
Viktor Orban was re-elected earlier this year after campaigning on an anti-immigration platform, with his Fidesz party winning two thirds of parliamentary seats.
Since coming to power, his government has taken a hardline stance against immigration.
It introduced a law which made it a criminal offence for lawyers and activists to help asylum seekers, under the banner of “facilitating illegal immigration”.
But there have also been reports of pressure being put on the courts and the electoral system and widespread corruption.
Asked by Andrew Marr if the party needed Mr Orban’s support for its Brexit plan, Mr Gove said: “No, because I think it would be wrong for me at a time when we need solidarity against a number of different threats – you mention anti-Semitism…
“I don’t believe that individual criticisms of the kind you are understandably attempting me to make necessarily help us in ensuring we get both solidarity on the issues that count and the best deal for Britain as we leave the European Union.”