Switzerland said on Wednesday (24 April) it would reintroduce quotas for EU workers, bowing to growing unease about immigration from poorer neighbours, in a decision Brussels says violates an accord.
Prosperous, landlocked Switzerland has seen the net influx of workers rise to up to 80,000 a year, contributing to a house price bubble and prompting criticism from right-wing parties.
The Swiss Federal Council said the quotas, effective for 12 months, will apply to eight central European countries. They will likely be extended to other countries in western and southern Europe in June, it added.
The quota applies to ‘category B’ permits which last five years.
Under the terms of the 1999 Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons, non-EU Switzerland may invoke a "safeguard clause" which allows temporary caps on work permits if the annual influx exceeds a certain number.
The Federal Council “came to the conclusion that the safeguard clause is one of several measures which can help to make immigration more acceptable to society and compatible with its needs," it said in a statement.
Ashton said she regretted the Swiss action, adding that it was contrary to the 1999 treaty since the quotas differentiate between countries.
"These measures disregard the great benefits that the free movement of persons brings to the citizens of both Switzerland and the EU," she said in a statement.
The eight countries affected are Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia.
The others that could be affected later are Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Restrictions in Switzerland already apply for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.
Last April, Switzerland temporarily imposed quotas on workers from the same eight eastern European countries.