More immigrants from the European Union entered Switzerland than ever before in 2013, the year before Swiss voters put their country at odds with Brussels by backing a cap on immigration from the bloc.
A net 66,200 EU citizens emigrated to Switzerland last year, the highest number since a free movement of people pact came into force in 2002, the State Secretariat for Economics (SECO) said in its annual report which examines the effect of the agreement on the Swiss economy.
The SECO figures pre-date February’s surprise vote in favour of imposing tighter immigration controls following a campaign which tapped into fears that Swiss culture is being eroded by foreigners, who account for nearly a quarter of the population.
Switzerland said last month it would introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens from 2017, sparking a sharp reaction from the European Union which dismissed the plans as incompatible with the pact that guarantees the free movement of workers.
The SECO report said limits on immigration, given Switzerland’s current economic and demographic conditions, could have negative repercussions on the country’s growth potential and labour market, while the department’s director praised the impact of the free-movement pact.
“Whatever its fate may be, the current free movement of people agreement has strengthened the competitiveness of businesses in Switzerland and has enabled the Swiss economy to post above-average growth in recent years,” SECO Director Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch told journalists in Berne.
More than 60% of the European immigrants came to Switzerland to work, the SECO said. When immigration from non-EU countries is included the net figure stood at 88,000 people, it said.
Switzerland is the third largest economic partner of the EU, after the United States and China. Switzerland is able to participate in the EU's single market thanks to a series of bilateral agreements. This approach suits Switzerland, but its complexity has become problematic for the EU and attempts are under way to simplify the relationship.
Despite the country's wealth and economic success, immigration is a hot-button issue in Switzerland where the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) has long blamed rising rents, crowded public transport and higher crime on an influx of foreigners.
Switzerland’s immigration policy is based on free movement of people from the EU and allowing a restricted number of non-EU citizens to enter the country.