MEPs blast Switzerland over workers quota, taxi restrictions

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The European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution yesterday (24 May), “highly regretting” the recently-introduced Swiss quotas for workers from the eight Central European countries which joined the EU in 2004. MEPs also blasted Berne for not allowing German and Austrian taxis to take passengers from Zurich airport.

MEPs called on the Swiss government to revoke a "discriminatory and unlawful" recent decision to reimpose quotas on long-term residence permits for Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Slovene, Slovak, Czech and Hungarian citizens (see background).

In the resolution - adopted with 486 votes in favour, 30 against and 27 abstentions - Parliament "highly regrets" the reintroduction of quotas restricting the free movement of people, which was the subject of an agreement between the EU and Switzerland in 1999.

The measure is "discriminatory and unlawful" as it targets EU citizens on the basis of their nationality, MEPs stressed, adding that there is no legal grounds for this in the existing treaties between Switzerland and the EU.

MEPs are concerned that the Swiss Federal Council is considering further restrictive measures and say that the EU and Switzerland should improve cooperation to ease their citizens' free movement. Parliament also calls on the Commission to urgently raise this issue with the Swiss government.

On Bulgaria and Romania, who joined the EU on 1 January 2007, MEPs regret the decision of the Swiss Government, adopted in May 2011, to extend the transitional period for Bulgarians and Romanians until 31 May 2014.

MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford (UK, ALDE) said there was a strong cross-party agreement on the matter. Apart from deeming the restriction “unlawful”, she stressed that the Swiss government had last year awarded only 2000 residence permits to nationals from the eight new EU members from Central Europe. Compared to the total number of one million EU citizens residing in Switzerland, she said she did not see this as “a massive problem”.

The only MEP to speak in favour of the Swiss restrictions was Auke Zijlstra from Geert Wilders PVV party, which gained notoriety when it asked Dutch citizens to denounce “nuisances” caused by East Europeans on its website.

On the other extreme, MEP Simon Busuttil (Malta, EPP), called on the Commission to denounce its agreements with Switzerland. The environment commissioner Janez Potočnik replied on behalf of the EU executive that such a measure was not on the agenda.

“We have no intention to denounce bilateral agreements, it would be even worse for us and for European citizens,” he said. The issue, however, is expected to feature high on the agenda of the next EU-Swiss meeting.

According to the Swiss press, the labour restrictions seek to appease Swiss public opinion ahead of a nationwide ratification vote on major international treaties to be held on 17 June, at the initiative of the nationalist right.

MEPs also took the occasion to sate their concern regarding the Swiss authorities’ refusal to allow German and Austrian taxis to take passengers from Swiss airports. They asked the Commission to check if this is compatible with existing EU-Switzerland legal agreements.  

According to a law which will be enacted in July, German and Austrian taxis will be able to take passengers from Zurich airport only during three months each year. 

Positions: 

The Swiss Government published a Statement in response to the European Parliament’s resolution explaining that the citizens of the eight Central European countries that joined the EU in 2004 have enjoyed complete freedom of movement since 1 May 2011.

“The Swiss-EU Bilateral Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons does however allow Switzerland, in certain circumstances, to reintroduce quotas,” the statement reads. “As of 1 May 2014 at the latest, citizens of the EU-8 countries will again be entitled to full freedom of movement,” the official statement goes on.

Berne also takes the view that in spite of the fact that the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons does not allow any permanent differentiation regarding nationality, the transitional measures do institute such a differentiation for a limited period. Switzerland is of the opinion that the accompanying measures conform to the terms of its agreements with the Union.

Switzerland also sees taxis as service providers within the terms of the Bilateral Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons, according to the position paper. “This stipulates that cross-border services may be provided for a maximum period of 90 days in the year (per driver and per company)”, the Statement reads.

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