27th Oct 2016

Swiss hope to salvage EU agreements despite immigrant cap

The Swiss government will try to salvage its bilateral programmes with the EU, which are under threat after voters backed plans to cap EU migration, the country's economy minister has said.

"We have to reconcile the popular vote and the free movement of persons, also in order to save the bilateral agreements," Johann Schneider-Ammann told the SonntagsZeitung in an interview on Sunday (2 March).

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  • Swiss voters backed strict curbs to EU immigration in a referendum in February (Photo: Lars Francke)

Swiss voters backed plans to reintroduce annual immigration quotas by a narrow majority in a referendum on 9 February, overturning at a stroke a 12-year-old agreement allowing Swiss and EU citizens to cross the border freely and to work on either side.

The initiative leaves the decision on the quota level in the hands of the Swiss government, which has three years to translate the vote into law, and which has promised to draft a bill to limit immigration by the end of the year.

Around 450,000 Swiss citizens exercise their right to live and work in the EU, while nearly 1.2 million EU citizens live in Switzerland.

However, the EU-Swiss pact on free movement sits alongside a series of bilateral agreements on goods and services which are now under threat.

Last week, the EU said it had suspended Switzerland's participation in its multi-billion-euro Horizon 2020 research programme and its Erasmus student exchange scheme. The bloc has also halted talks on integrating Switzerland's utility firms into the EU energy market.

Schneider-Ammann met with business leaders on Saturday, who urged him to keep restrictions on free movement to a bare minimum in a bid to minimise the effects on the country's economy.

Both the government and business groups had urged voters to reject the curbs to immigration put forward by the eurosceptic Swiss People's Party.

Economic analysts have forecast that any restrictions on Swiss firms' access to the EU's single market, particularly for its substantial banking and pharmaceutical industries, will limit the country's growth prospects.

In a nod to this, the minister added that "there is no sustainable growth without immigration."

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