Steinmeier urges EU-Swiss talks on planned immigration quotas

Frank-Walter Steinmeier [European Commission]

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier yesterday (17 August) urged the European Union to negotiate with Switzerland on Bern’s plans for new quotas on immigration from the bloc.

“Relations with Switzerland are important to me, and I hope a deal will be found,” Steinmeier said while visiting Swiss counterpart Didier Burkhalter in Bern, the ATS news agency reported.

Switzerland has been scrambling to find a way to implement the wishes of the people – who narrowly voted in February, 2014 to dramatically rein in immigration from the EU – without ripping up a range of decade-old treaties governing Switzerland’s ties with the bloc.

The Swiss voted to renegotiate a deal giving citizens of the EU – Switzerland’s main trading partner – free access to the wealthy Alpine country’s labour market.

>>Read: EU-Swiss relations in turmoil after immigration vote

According to Swiss law, the changes must go into effect by February 2017.

But so far, the Swiss have not had anyone to negotiate with, since Brussels has repeatedly said it cannot accept any compromise on its core principle that European citizens have the right of free movement.

It has instead threatened to use a “guillotine” clause if Bern voids the free movement accord, impacting agreements covering trade and economic ties, market access, and agricultural produce and several others.

Steinmeier stressed on the importance of negotiating but acknowledged that it was unclear if the two sides could agree, and said a solution would not be found “overnight”.

Burkhalter said Switzerland did not want to renegotiate the principle of free movement, but only how it is applied.

Some 80,000 foreigners, most from the EU, settle in the country each year, and about a quarter of the country’s some eight million inhabitants are foreign nationals.

A narrow majority of Swiss voters backed proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas for the European Union at a referendum held in February last year.

The referendum was held in order to pry open the Swiss labour market to workers from Croatia, which joined the EU in July 2013.

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.

The European Commission warned about the "consequences" of the Swiss vote, saying it contravened the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland.

In one immediate consequence, the Commission said it was postponing talks on Swiss participation in both the EU's €80-billion Horizon 2020 research programme and its €14.7-billion Erasmus+ educational exchange programme.

>> Read: Switzerland gets first penalty for immigration vote

Switzerland’s immigration policy was until then based on the free movement of people from the EU and allowing a restricted number of non-EU citizens to enter the country.

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.

Switzerland has since attempted to backtrack on its decision by opening its labour market to Croatian workers. But the move was seen as insufficient by the EU, which asked for a longer-term solution.

>> Read: Switzerland backtracks on immigration curbs

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