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Swiss vote on EU immigration

Published on 06/02/2009

GENEVA - Switzerland's ties with its European neighbours will be determined in a Sunday referendum, when Swiss voters decide whether or not to continue to allow unrestricted immigration from the EU.

Postal voting already began on the government’s attempt to prolong an agreement on free movement of labour, which also provides some 400,000 Swiss migrants unrestricted access to jobs in the European Union, and to extend it to the bloc’s most recent members, Bulgaria and Romania.

Campaigning set non-member Switzerland’s economic interests against traditional popular fears about immigration and its prized independence.

More than one million of the country’s 1.62 million foreign residents come from the EU and western Europe.

Their number increased by nearly 200,000 since limits on employing EU citizens were gradually lifted from 2002, helping to stimulate a Swiss economic boom until 2008.

Swiss President and Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz recently warned that a ‘no’ vote could disturb bilateral accords, including transport, education and agriculture, that underpin an often difficult relationship with the EU.

Those agreements also ease an estimated CHF 1 billion a day in economic exchanges with Switzerland’s top trade partner, according to official data.

"Our country is opposed to membership, but we recognise 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 supported by the majority of the Swiss political, business and social establishment, popular support is timid.

In the last opinion poll released by Swiss state television on 28 January, 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.

That contrasted with the 67 percent of Swiss voters who approved free movement of labour in a referendum in 2000 and 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, captured the mood of many voters by raising fears about Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.

The SVP’s campaign poster depicts crows pecking at Switzerland, while the party calls Bulgaria and Romania as the "Europe’s third world".

"We did favour 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 chiefs deserted the party line.

The European Commission’s ambassador in Switzerland, Michael Reiterer, cautioned in January that the Swiss couldn’t suddenly decide to treat the EU as "25 plus two".

"The neighbours of a family which has just had a newborn can’t say I don’t accept the baby", Reiterer pointed out.

A European Commission spokesman on Thursday called 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, stimulated Swiss unease.

"The economic climate means that things are much more delicate", Leonard Bender, a member of the centre-right and EU-friendly Radical Party, told AFP.

[AFP / Peter Capella / Expatica]