The European Commission on Thursday (22 December) welcomed progress in relations between the EU and Switzerland after Bern avoided a clash with Brussels by passing an immigration law that does not impose outright quotas.
The law aims to curb immigration by giving local people first crack at job opportunities, but does not introduce quotas, as Swiss voters had demanded in a 2014 referendum.
That appeased Brussels, which is unwilling to compromise on the free movement of people – a principle underpinning Swiss access to the EU’s single market of 500 million.
Following a meeting of the EU-Switzerland Joint Committee on Thursday, the executive said in a statement that the balance achieved in the Swiss law “should make it possible to preserve the integrity of the contractual commitments between the European Union and Switzerland”.
But the Commission said it wanted more clarity and guarantees on access to information about job vacancies and the rights of cross-border commuters.
“The Commission will closely monitor the implementation of this solution. 2017 could be a milestone in the development of closer relations between the European Union and Switzerland, with a view to enhancing still further the vitality of our area of freedom – of all forms of freedom – to the benefit of all our citizens,” President Jean-Claude Juncker stated.
The Swiss law says that at times of economic upheaval, employers in sectors or regions with above-average unemployment rates must inform local job centres of vacancies and obtain the names of job seekers.
The presumption is that local residents will be more likely to register with the centres – although cross-border commuters and any citizens from EU or EFTA countries will be allowed to do so, enabling the Swiss government to argue that it meets the EU’s non-discrimination test.
Switzerland’s immigration policy is based on the free movement of people from the EU, and allowing a restricted number of non-EU citizens to enter the country.
However, the policy was thrown into doubt in February 2014 when Swiss voters narrowly backed proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union.
In response, Brussels decided to postpone talks on Swiss participation in both the EU's €80-billion Horizon 2020 research programme and its €14.7-billion Erasmus+ educational exchange programme.
Since then, Berne and Brussels have been gridlocked over how to implement the Swiss referendum.
The bid to seal an agreement has been stalled by EU member Britain’s similar demand to limit immigration from within the EU, making it hard for the EU to offer a preferential deal for Switzerland before it has settled matters with Britain.
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.
Swiss industry heavyweights such as drugmakers Roche and Novartis as well as banks UBS and Credit Suisse have traditionally looked outside the country for highly skilled and specialised staff. The Swiss business community has warned that re-imposing immigration quotas on EU citizens quotas would call the country's bilateral agreements with the bloc into question.