Swiss to make critical decisions on EU immigration
Campaigning has pitted non-EU-member Switzerland's economic interests against traditional popular fears about immigration and the neutral Alpine nation's prized independence.Geneva -- Switzerland's ties with its European neighbors hang in the balance in a Sunday referendum, when Swiss voters will decide whether or not to continue to allow unrestricted immigration from the EU.
Postal voting is already underway on the government's attempt to prolong an accord on the free movement of labor and to extend it to the bloc's most recent members, Bulgaria and Romania. The labor accord also provides some 400,000 Swiss migrants unrestricted access to jobs in the European Union.
Campaigning has pitted non-member Switzerland's economic interests against traditional popular fears about immigration and the neutral Alpine nation's prized independence.
More than one million of the country's 1.62 million foreign residents come from the EU and western Europe.
Their number has surged by nearly 200,000 since limits on employing EU citizens were gradually lifted from 2002. Until last year, this influx of EU citizens helped to fuel a Swiss economic boom.
Swiss President and Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz recently warned that a 'no' vote could topple the pile of bilateral accords, including transport, education and agriculture, which underpin an often-touchy relationship with the EU.
Those agreements also ease an estimated 1 billion Swiss francs a day in economic exchanges with Switzerland's top trade partner, according to official data.
"Our country is opposed to membership, but we recognize that we wouldn't be able to go it alone without ending up in complete isolation, and we couldn't afford that," Merz said.
While the latest move is actively backed by the bulk of the Swiss political, business and social establishment, popular support has been timid.
In the last opinion poll released by Swiss state television on January 28, just 50 percent of those polled supported the motion.
However, 43 percent rejected it and seven percent were undecided, marking a marginal gain for opponents in a month and only a slender advantage for pro-Europeans.
In contrast, 67 percent of Swiss voters approved the free movement of labor in a referendum nine years ago. There was also a clear majority when it was last expanded to match the enlarged EU in 2005.
Opponents in the hard-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) -- the country's largest political group -- appear to have captured the mood of many voters by whipping up fears about Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.
The SVP's campaign poster depicts ravenous crows pecking at Switzerland, while the party calls Bulgaria and Romania "Europe's third world."
"We did favor the prolongation, but we oppose the extension to these two countries, because we don't believe they're ready to integrate in the EU," SVP Vice President Yvan Perrin told Swiss television TSR.
Perrin said growing unemployment in the EU would encourage the more impoverished to turn to prosperous Switzerland for jobs. But even the SVP was divided, as business executives deserted the party line.
The European Commission's ambassador in Switzerland, Michael Reiterer, cautioned last month that the Swiss could not suddenly decide to treat the EU as "25 plus two." "The neighbors of a family which has just had a newborn can't say I don't accept the baby," Reiterer said.
A European Commission spokesman on Thursday dubbed free movement "a story of economic success, of employment and of gains in personal freedoms."
But regional pockets of concern, such as historic animosity in Swiss-German Zurich towards the booming influx of Germans, or fears about cross-border workers or Roma gypsies in Geneva have fuelled Swiss unease.
"The economic climate means that things are much more delicate," said Leonard Bender, a member of the center-right and EU-friendly Radical Party.