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Swiss vote threatens free movement in heart of Europe

A Swiss vote Sunday on limiting EU immigration is not expected to pass, but fears abound that a shock “yes” could deal a fatal blow to relations with the bloc.

The initiative, backed by the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) — Switzerland’s largest party — has seen dwindling public support in recent polls.

But SVP has eked out surprise victories in the past in its drawn-out war against tightening relations with the European Union, fueling concern that Switzerland’s relationship with its biggest trading partner could be in jeopardy.

The initiative, put to a vote as part of Switzerland’s direct democracy system, calls for the country to revise its constitution to ensure it can autonomously handle its immigration policy.

SVP, which has built its brand by condemning immigration and EU influence, warns that the wealthy Alpine country is facing “uncontrolled and excessive immigration” and that Swiss “jobs are threatened”.

“We must retrieve the portion of sovereignty involving controlling immigration,” Vincent Schaller, an SVP member of the Geneva municipal parliament, told AFP.

Speaking from a stand set up near a Geneva market for discussions with the public about the upcoming vote, he insisted that “SVP wants immigration of choice.”

– ‘Enough!’ –

He was flanked by one of the party’s more provocative posters for this vote, showing a jeans-clad behind with an EU-starred belt sitting heavily on a map of Switzerland, under the words: “Enough is enough!”.

“We are in favour of quality immigration, not quantity immigration,” SVP member Elvira Voskresenskaia agreed.

While not an EU member, Switzerland is bound to the bloc through an array of intricately connected bilateral agreements.

If the SVP initiative passes, Swiss authorities would have one year to negotiate an end to its 1999 agreement with Brussels on the free movement of persons between Switzerland and the bloc.

The proposal goes even further than a similar measure, also backed by SVP, that was voted on in February 2014. It demanded that Bern impose quotas on migration from EU countries.

That vote narrowly passed, throwing Swiss-EU relations into disarray, with Brussels warning that any curbs on immigration by EU citizens put a whole range of bilateral agreements at risk.

Bern struggled for years to find a way to respect the will of the people without permanently alienating EU neighbours.

After lengthy talks, the agreement reached in late 2016 stopped far short of an initial plan to impose quotas on resident permits issued to EU citizens, which Brussels had fiercely rejected.

Instead Bern opted to merely require Swiss employers to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops before hiring from the bloc, and to prioritise Swiss job seekers, at least ostensibly.

SVP condemned that compromise as a “betrayal” and launched its new initiative.

– ‘Guillotine clause’ –

While the 2014 vote still looms large in Switzerland’s collective memory, it seems anxiety over immigration has lessened somewhat: recent polls indicate around 65 percent of Swiss are opposed to the SVP initiative.

“Conditions have changed greatly compared to 2014,” Geneva University political scientist Pascal Sciarni told AFP.

He pointed to research showing a number of people who voted for SVP’s 2014 initiative had changed their mind after realising that the EU would not budge on certain principles.

SVP meanwhile finds itself more isolated than ever, with the government, parliament, unions, employer organisations and all other political parties urging voters to reject the initiative.

Opponents stress the importance of the EU relationship for the country’s economy, in particular in border regions like Geneva and Basel, where large numbers of people cross over from the EU every day to work.

The government has also cautioned that if Switzerland unilaterally voids the free movement accord, a “guillotine” clause will come into force to freeze the entire package of Swiss-EU deals, including on trade.

Sunday’s poll will also see Swiss voters cast ballots on a range of other issues, including on whether to dish out 6.0 billion Swiss francs ($6.6 billion, 5.6 billion euros) for new fighter jets, and on whether to grant two weeks’ paternity leave to new fathers.