Monday, 10 February 2014

Swiss Immigration Vote Raises Alarm Across Europe

Swiss Immigration Vote Raises Alarm Across Europe

BERLIN — Swiss and European leaders reacted warily on Monday to Swiss voters’ narrow approval of a proposal to limit the number of foreigners allowed to live and work in Switzerland.

A bare majority voted in a referendum on Sunday to cut immigration quotas and require that Swiss nationals be given priority in hiring. The result could have far-reaching implications for relations between Switzerland and the 28-member European Union, of which it is not a member.

Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, said Monday that the European Union would have to reconsider its relationship with Switzerland.

“It is a vote that causes concern because it means that Switzerland wants to withdraw into itself,” Mr. Fabius told RTL radio.

That warning was echoed by other European officials. “We have been extremely clear about what it means to have free movement of people as part of our overall agreement with Switzerland, and we have established that this is an initiative that does run counter to the principle of free movement of people between the European Union and Switzerland,” Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, told reporters in Brussels on Monday. She added, “so now what we will have to do is judge the consequences of this for our relations with Switzerland.”

She stressed that free movement was an element of the bilateral agreements with Switzerland, adding that any breach of the principle “will have implications in our relations with Switzerland.”

While staying outside the European Union, Switzerland, which is surrounded by countries that are members of the bloc, has opted to increase cooperation with the bloc. Its ties are governed by around 100 bilateral agreements, based on a free trade deal struck in 1972. That leaves it potentially vulnerable to retaliation
from the bloc.

European Union foreign ministers were expected to meet on Monday in Brussels and were expected to have further comments on the Swiss vote.

In Switzerland, Simonetta Sommaruga, the justice minister, in comments Sunday to the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, called the outcome “a pivotal decision with far-reaching consequences” that reflected a growing unease about a rising population of immigrants in recent years.

Switzerland has one of the highest proportions of foreigners in Europe, amounting to about 27 percent of the country’s population of roughly eight million. Many job seekers have arrived from countries hit hard by the European economic crisis.

In neighboring Germany, Switzerland’s largest trading partner, Wolfgang Schäuble, the pro-European finance minister, said the vote must be viewed as a signal for politicians elsewhere in Europe.

“I think that we all have to take this very seriously,” Mr. Schäuble, who has spent decades working toward tighter European integration, told the German public network ARD. “We regret this decision. It will cause a lot of difficulties for Switzerland.”

The referendum on the changes to the country’s liberal immigration law was a rebuke to the Swiss government, the banking industry and business leaders, who had lobbied against the restrictions, warning that such a move could endanger Switzerland’s prosperity.

The admonitions failed to drown out the warnings of the rightist Swiss People’s Party, which introduced the referendum, saying it was necessary if Switzerland was to retain its identity in the face of immigration.

Immigration has become a polarizing issue across Europe. More prosperous nations are growing worried that their welfare systems cannot handle an influx of workers from the poorer Eastern European countries and some southern member states of the European Union.

Far-right parties with anti-immigrant platforms in France, the Netherlands and Norway have gained strength in recent years, and there have been sharp debates in Britain and Germany over limiting the number of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania because citizens from those countries gained full access to European
Union job markets this year.

Nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe welcomed the Swiss vote as indicative of an overall rejection of recent strides to deeply integrate the bloc by easing restrictions and allowing people to live, work and study — and also draw welfare benefits — in any member country.

“It is becoming more and more obvious to people across Europe that unfettered free movement from the poorest countries on the continent into the more advanced ones with higher living standards and welfare entitlements is unsustainable,” Britain’s U.K. Independence Party said in a statement.

The center-right European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, which is the largest group there, took a tough line.

“The free movement of citizens is a core principle of the E.U. Switzerland has a binding bilateral agreement with the E.U. to accept and guarantee free movement for all E.U. citizens,” said a statement by its chairman, Joseph Daul, and its vice chairman, Manfred Weber.

“The E.U. also guarantees free movement for Swiss citizens. We regret that the Swiss government will have to change the country’s position on this crucial part of its relations with the E.U. There is no room for negotiations, however, and the rules cannot be changed unilaterally.”

The proposals give Switzerland three years to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the European Union on the free movement of people, or require that they be revoked entirely. The Swiss government said it would begin work immediately on drawing up a proposal to Parliament.

Sunday’s referendum was the third time that Swiss citizens have voted on the free movement of people since May 2000, when voters approved a first bilateral deal with the European Union that included the free movement accord. Further votes were required as the bloc expanded, to include new member states as
they joined.

“We always thought the argument about jobs would win people over,” Urs Schwaller, a lawmaker with the centrist Christian People’s Party, said in an interview with the Swiss television channel SRF. “Clearly, that wasn’t enough.”

Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin, and Stephen Castle from London.

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