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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 24 November, 2014

“This will cause problems” – EU warns Switzerland after immigration result

Germany says the vote is “going to create plenty of problems for Switzerland”.

A Swiss voter leaves a polling box in Geneva yesterday
A Swiss voter leaves a polling box in Geneva yesterday
Image: AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

THE EUROPEAN UNION has warned it will review ties with Switzerland after the non-member Alpine country voted yesterday to restrict EU immigration in a closely-fought referendum.

Final results of the plebiscite showed 50.3 per cent of voters backed the Stop Mass Immigration plan pushed by Swiss right-wing populists.

The fall-out from the result could sink a raft of deals with the EU, including on the economic front.

Switzerland is ringed by EU member countries and does the bulk of its trade with the 28-nation bloc, but has remained steadfast about not becoming a member.

The European Commission said it would assess EU ties with Switzerland, raising the prospect of restricted trade or other retaliatory steps.

“The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole,” it said a statement.

EU foreign ministers are due to meet today in Brussels but it was not clear whether the Swiss vote would be added to the agenda.

Problems

Wolfgang Schaeuble, finance minister of Germany, Switzerland’s top trade partner, said the result “is going to create plenty of problems for Switzerland in a host of areas”. But he said it was also a warning sign of European globalisation fears.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said he planned to tour European capitals to explain the vote and seek a solution, starting with Berlin.

“The people are sovereign, and a healthy system doesn’t force the public to follow political authorities with outsized powers,” Burkhalter said.

The Swiss government and a broad swathe of economic lobby groups fearing the EU fall-out had battled the immigration curb plan.

But under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, voters have the last word on a huge range of issues.

‘We are ashamed’

The French-language newspaper Le Temps noted how French-speaking areas and larger cities voted against the immigration curbs, while German-speaking and rural areas generally voted for them.

Hundreds of people came out to demonstrate against the referendum result in the capital Bern and in the city of Lucerne. “We are ashamed,” shouted protesters in Bern.

The Swiss government said it would examine over coming weeks how to “recast relations” with the EU, but stressed that current immigration rules would remain in place until the new ones were drawn up.

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which piloted the referendum, claimed the country has been swamped by migrants in its campaign.

“The people have taken back their destiny over immigration,” said party ideologue Christoph Blocher, while leader Toni Brunner hailed “a turning point in our immigration policy”.

The SVP says that with 80,000 EU citizens arriving per year — more than the 8,000 predicted before the rules were liberalised — the nation of eight million people needs to apply the brakes.

Immigration

It claims that EU migrants undercut Swiss workers’ salaries, and that overpopulation has driven up rents, stretched the health and education systems, and overloaded the road and rail networks.

Immigration and national identity are traditional political themes in a country with a long history of drawing foreign workers and yet some of Europe’s toughest rules for obtaining citizenship.

But over recent years, the proportion of foreigners has risen from around one-fifth of the population to roughly a quarter.

There are around a million EU citizens in Switzerland, while some 430,000 Swiss live in EU member states.

The majority of recent immigrants are from neighbouring Germany, Italy and France, as well as Portugal.

The new measure will leave it up to authorities to set quotas for foreigners’ work permits per sector.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: How Switzerland became the quiet rebel of Europe >

Read: Switzerland votes to cap EU immigration by tiny margin >

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