By Crispian Balmer

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Matteo Salvini denied on Thursday that his League party is a far-right group, instead portraying it as a moderate force that wants to broaden its appeal to metropolitan voters who have previously shunned it.

The anti-immigration League is allied to nationalist groups in Europe, such as Austria's Freedom Party and France's National Rally, but after a recent election setback Salvini looks keen to moderate his image at home.

"We are not the radical right. We don't have ambitions to be presented as the radical right in Italy," said Salvini, who quit government last year and is the de facto opposition leader.

"One in three Italians vote for the League, so it is clear that the party needs to talk to everybody, not just the radical right," he told a group of foreign reporters.

While the League remains Italy's most popular party, with support hovering around 30%, its nationalist ally the Brothers of Italy (FdI) has seen its own backing surge this past year to some 12% from around 4%.

Italian newspapers have reported that Salvini is concerned by the strong showing of FdI and its leader Giorgia Meloni, but he denied this on Thursday, saying all his partners need to grow if the right wants to win the next parliamentary election.

The Salvini-led centre-right bloc lost a regional ballot last month in the wealthy Emilia Romagna region, a leftist stronghold, dashing his hopes of a historic triumph that could have triggered the downfall of Italy's fragile coalition government.

Salvini blamed the loss on the League's poor showing in the main city Bologna -- an electoral weakness that has hurt the party before.

"Clearly there is a message that needs to be calibrated differently (in the cities)," said Salvini, comparing the League's problem to that of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has scored badly in larger urban areas.

Salvini has struggled to find his political touch this year and he had a setback on Wednesday when parliament voted to lift his judicial immunity, a move that could led to him being charged with illegally detaining migrants at sea.

He said he planned to visit a number of countries in the coming weeks to strengthen his party's foreign credentials.

Salvini is well known within the European Union for his repeated attacks on the 27-nation bloc, but on Thursday, he conceded the EU has its good points, saying it carries much more clout than individual states in delicate negotiations.

During his 14-month stint as interior minister, Salvini sought to strike deals with a number of African countries on returning migrants. However, he said he would have achieved much more if he had involved the whole European Union.

(Additional reporting by Gavin Jones; Editing by Gavin Jones and Frances Kerry)

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