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BUDAPEST, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Central European leaders signed a joint declaration on Thursday saying immigration should not be the answer to the European Union's declining birth rate, while calling on the bloc to keep family policy under national jurisdiction.
The strong anti-immigrant stances taken by governments in central European countries such as Hungary - while popular with many domestic voters - have contrasted sharply with policies in the rest of the bloc. These central European countries have also objected to EU criticism of their policies on social issues such as gay rights.
"Increasing the number of European children is essential to preserving Europe's Christian culture and other religious traditions for future generations," said the statement, signed by the prime ministers of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the president of Serbia, which is not an EU member.
"Migration should not be seen as the main tool to tackle demographic challenges."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, facing the prospect of a closely-fought election next year, has grown increasingly radical on social policy to protect what he says are traditional Christian values from Western liberalism. He has also stepped up his anti-immigration campaign in recent weeks following the Taliban takeover of power in Afghanistan.
Orban, who views Muslim immigration to Europe as a threat to the continent's cultural identity, visited a steel fence on the EU's border with Serbia on Wednesday with his Czech counterpart, Andrej Babis.
Babis is also facing an election in two weeks and like Orban, he is campaigning on a strongly anti-migrant platform.
The European Union's birth rate has been decreasing since 2000, Eurostat figures show, with 1.53 live births per woman in 2019, well below the 2.1 mark considered sufficient to prevent a decline in population numbers.
"The only sustainable solution against the extinction of Europe is to increase the birth rate," Babis told the Budapest Demographic Summit, where the central European leaders issued their joint statement.
As central European economies rebound from the pandemic, companies in the region are struggling to find workers as labour markets are tightening up. (Reporting by Krisztina Than and Gergely Szakacs Editing by Alison Williams and Frances Kerry)
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