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The determining factor in Europe's forthcoming elections will be migration over anything else — even the economy, Hungary's foreign affairs and trade minister told CNBC.
"If you put into consideration the last three national parliamentary elections of Europe — Hungary, Austria, Italy — you'll see that the parties that receive the most votes … (are) those who have a very clear policy on migration, an anti-migration policy," Peter Szijjarto told CNBC Thursday at the annual forum of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.
"It's obvious that migration became the key factor of deciding the outcome of national parliamentary elections."
Szijjarto represents the government of Viktor Orban, the nationalist firebrand who's been called "the troublemaker of Europe" for his self-proclaimed disregard for the EU's traditional liberal democratic values. Orban was overwhelmingly re-elected as prime minister in April, promising tough crackdowns on migration and prioritization of border security as key rallying points.
Austria's election last fall saw the biggest victories for right-wing parties since the 1930s, all of whom took hard lines on migration and Muslims. And the results of the Italian election in March sent shockwaves through Europe as two anti-establishment parties, the Five Star Movement and the heavily anti-immigrant Lega party, came out on top and are now forming a coalition government.
Immigration has been at the forefront of political debate across the Western world as years of brutal conflict in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia have driven millions of refugees from their homes. Worsening poverty and living conditions particularly in North and sub-Saharan Africa have also fueled economic migration to Europe.
Between 2015 and 2017, more than a million asylum seekers and economic migrants entered the EU, making it the largest influx of displaced people in Europe since World War II. In 2017, however, the number of migrants reaching Europe by boat was half the figure it was in the previous year — down from 363,504 to 171,635, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Before Hungary erected fences along its borders with Croatia and Serbia, it served as one of the main entry points into the EU for migrants traveling by land. More recent security measures have brought irregular border crossings down significantly from their peak of 441,515 in 2015. Figures from Eurostat in December 2017 recorded first-time asylum applications to Hungary at 120 per month. In Germany, that figure is more than 5,000 per month.
The Orban government announced in February it would allow in only two asylum seekers per day, a move that human rights groups say violates international laws.
A rise in Islamic State-led and inspired terrorist attacks across Europe has fueled security concerns as well as Islamophobic and anti-immigrant sentiment, helping propel populist candidates to power. According to a Gallup poll from June 2017, 66 percent of Europeans believed non-resident terrorism to be a serious problem.
Meanwhile, a report published the same month by the Danish Institute for International Studies found that European citizens, not refugees, were behind most terror attacks in Europe to that point.
"Immigration now rivals economics as the driving force in Western politics," Financial Times Chief Foreign Affairs Commentator Gideon Rachman wrote last month, arguing that the migrant issue will shape politics for decades to come.
And this will play out as an enduring thorn between EU politicians and parties with different approaches toward the issue, Szijjerto predicted. "Brussels has to understand that the people consider their security as a very important issue," he said. "European people really want their security back, and you see that they think about that more and more similarly."
The European Parliament elections in May 2019 could be a defining point in the direction of the EU, the minister added. "And I'm pretty sure that the composition of the European Parliament will be totally different than currently. So we'll see."