Swiss parliament errs on side of caution in EU immigration dispute

Switzerland's coalition cabinet "wishes to build on the bilateral approach with the European Union". [Shutterstock]

Switzerland approved a law today (16 December) aimed at curbing immigration by giving local people the first crack at open jobs, skirting voter demands for outright quotas that the country’s lawmakers feared could disrupt close ties with the European Union.

After parliament passed the new immigration law, the European Commission reacted positively to the development.

“Today the result of the parliamentary process is known. At first sight, we say the law appears to go in the right direction,” spokesman Margaritis Schinas told a news conference.

“It is a good sign that the law is not intended to impose quotas on the free circulation of EU citizens and does not envisage restricting their access to employment in Switzerland, contrary to what was in the initial draft of the text,” he continued.

Schinas said that the EU intended to have a close dialogue with the Swiss over the application of the law and would continue its analysis in the next few days, also consulting the EU’s 28 member states.

Brussels so far has shown scant flexibility on the free movement of people, the principle underpinning Swiss access to the single market, so as not to encourage Britain as it negotiates its EU divorce.

Post-Brexit UK will broker Swiss-style deal with EU, investors say

Once the United Kingdom has left the EU, it will most likely implement a bilateral ‘Swiss model’, according to a survey of institutional investors, which also showed financial passporting rights are of greater concern to them than restrictions on immigration.

The lack of upper limits on immigration to a country of 8.3 million, whose population is already a quarter foreign, prompted the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to assert that politicians had defied the people’s will in a 2014 referendum.

The SVP, the largest party in parliament, accused other parties of kowtowing to Brussels and shirking their duty to stand up for Swiss sovereignty. Its members held up signs protesting the final vote reading “constitutional breach” and “mass immigration continues”.

But a clear majority in parliament did not want to risk a row with the EU, Switzerland’s main trading partner, which could retaliate by abrogating other bilateral accords easing trade in sectors that account for 7% of Swiss economic output.

Nearly 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland and another 365,000 commute in from neighbouring countries.

Switzerland and EU head – politely – for the rocks

As all eyes focus on Brexit – where everything has changed but nothing has started – there is another proud European democracy which would like to shut its doors to immigrants but keep open the EU’s doors to its goods and services – Switzerland, writes Denis MacShane.

The Swiss believe that gives them leverage with Germany, France and Italy, whose leaders may not want to have to explain to voters, especially those in border regions with strong populist party support, why they can no longer work in high-wage Swiss jobs.

Passage of the law clears the way for Switzerland to extend free movement of people to the EU’s newest member, Croatia. That in turn will restore Swiss access to the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme, which funds research projects.

In any event, Swiss voters look set to decide for a second time whether to impose curbs on immigration or reaffirm close economic ties with the bloc.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will talk with Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann later today to exchange initial views and to discuss the next steps. A joint EU-Swiss committee meeting is planned for 22 December.

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