Czech PM condemns Swiss ‘safeguard’ on Eastern EU workers

Petr Necas_0.jpg

Avoiding terms like "discrimination", Czech Prime Minister Petr Ne?as yesterday (19 April) told EURACTIV.cz that he regretted the decision by Switzerland to re-introduce an authorisation requirement for workers from the eight East European countries that joined the EU in 2004. The EURACTIV network in Central Europe contributed to this article.

In a statement he made exclusively to EURACTIV Czech Republic, Ne?as referred to the advantages of the freedom of movement and rejected the view that the economic crisis could be used as an argument for re-introducing labour restrictions.

"For a long time, the Czech Republic has been an advocate of the single European market," Ne?as said.

"While we understand that opening the labour market for foreign workers in Switzerland is a sensitive issue, economic analyses proved that the benefits of free market and free movement of workforce are undisputable," the prime minister said.

"Especially in times of economic crisis, there is a need for opening markets. The experience of many other countries and expert evidence shows that free movement of workers has no tangible impact on employment of local citizens."

Asked to comment on the same issue, Viktorie Plivova, spokesperson for Czech Labour and Social Affairs minister Jaromír Drábek, appeared to imply that the Swiss decision was probably intended for the domestic constituency, which is known to be sensitive to immigration issues.

"We regard the decision of Swiss government on introduction of selective quotas on the free movement of citizens from some EU countries as unfortunate. In comparison with the number of nationals from other EU countries, the number of people coming to this European country … is negligible," Plivova said.

Measure aimed at the internal audience?

Plivova's assumption that the measure is intended to appease Swiss public opinion is widely shared the country's news media.

Judith Mayencourt wrote for the Tribune de Genève that the recourse to the safeguard clause was merely "gesticulation" and that the intended goals would not be reached. The German-language daily Blick also sounded sceptical, writing that the labour opportunities prohibited for Poles and Slovaks would be taken up by Portuguese and Spaniards.

Le Quotidien Jurassien reported that the Swiss safeguard clause will cut from 6,000 to 2,000 the number of B-type long-term residence permits granted to Eastern Europeans, describing it as a "cosmetic" measure compared to the total of 60,000 B-type permits issued by Switzerland every year.

The daily reported that the measure seeks to appease the 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.

Le Temps described the measure as "cosmetic", but added that the government had "no other choice but to show the population that it takes into account its worries and its exasperation".

Switzerland has one of the highest ratios of foreigners in Europe, 22.4%, Swiss Federal Statistical Office figures show. Figures also show that more than 55% of the foreigners living in Switzerland are from the EU-15, the older members of the Union before the 2004 enlargement.

Some 85.2% of Switzerland’s permanent resident population are of European origin, more than two-thirds of whom are nationals of an EU or EFTA member state. Italians make up the largest group (16.3%), followed by nationals of Germany (14.9%), Portugal (12%). The number of foreigners from Eastern EU countries is not indicated. Serbians comprise 6.9% of the foreign-born population.

Swiss farmers angered by safeguard

Swiss farmers – who rely on seasonal migrant workers – are particularly unhappy with the government's decision, La Tribune de Genève reported.

"This measure will result in additional costs and Swiss farmers did not need that," the director of the Swiss Farmers' Union was quoted as saying. The labour-intensive vegetable sector is expected to be the most affected, the daily notes.

Maja Kocijan?i?, spokesperson to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said that the EU executive would discuss the issue with the Swiss authorities in June, during a previously scheduled meeting.

Ashton, in a statement on 18 April, condemned the Swiss decision to reintroduce restrictions. "I consider this measure to be in breach of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons as amended by the Protocol of 2004," she said.

The Swiss measure does not affect short-term travel for all EU citizens, who can stay without visas for up to 90 days.

Asked to comment by EURACTIV Slovakia, Michal Stuška, spokesperson of the Ministry of Labour, Social affairs and Family of Slovakia, called the Swiss decision unfounded and discriminatory.

"We believe that the agreement between the European Community and its member states on the one side, and the Swiss Confederation on the other side, on free movement of people does not allow this kind of distinction between the member states. We will agree on the next steps in this case with the other countries concerned," Stuška said.

The Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary) issued a statement, adopted at the ministerial level, calling the measure discriminatory. They also point out that the decision was not based on statistics and was adopted without warning.

"We are convinced that in the times of crisis we have to reinforce – not weaken – European economic freedoms," the ministers said, expressing the hope that the Swiss government would review its decision.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he regretted the decision of Switzerland to "discriminate against eight EU member states". 

"This goes against the spirit and letter of what Switzerland has already signed up to. EU nationals in Switzerland benefit the Swiss economy. In good economic times or difficult ones, legal obligations, be it for EU member states or third countries, must be respected.  We need to work more closely with our closest neighbours, now is not the time to weaken free movement, but rather strengthen it. Switzerland is the EU's third largest trading partner and there are no clear legal or economic justifications for such a decision against eight EU member states," Schulz said.

A Polish MEP quoted by EURACTIV Poland also reacted at what he saw as "discrimination". Rafa? Trzaskowki (European People's Party), rapporteur for the Internal Market Committee on the European Economic Area and Switzerland, called the decision "not acceptable" and "simply a manifestation of discrimination".

"The decision is at odds with the agreement on free movement of persons signed by the EU and Switzerland, which provides similar conditions for movement of EU citizens in Switzerland and Swiss nationals in the Community," Trzaskowki said.

The European Parliament had shown "a lot of understanding for the peculiarities of the political system of the Swiss Confederation," which he said has prevented the establishment of a more efficient system of cooperation than the EU has with Norway and Iceland.

On 18 April Switzerland announced that it would temporarily re-introduce an authorisation requirement for workers coming from the eight East European countries that joined the EU in 2004 (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia).

Switzerland opened its labour market to the EU-8 on 1 May 2011. However, the country decided to make use of a "safeguard clause" in its freedom of movement agreement with the EU.

The Swiss decision that was sharply criticised by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. She said the measure was in breach of a bilateral EU-Switzerland agreement, which in her terms did not allow for any differentiation between EU citizens. 

Ashton added that the Swiss measure was neither economically justified by the labour market situation nor by the number of EU citizens seeking residence in Switzerland.

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