Switzerland Proposes Immigration Quotas as EU Standoff Looms

Switzerland proposed limiting the number of new immigrants from European Union countries as a standoff with the 28-member bloc looms over the government’s attempt to implement the results of a February vote on foreigners.

Today’s proposal features quotas and a maximum number of new immigrants in Switzerland, the government said in an e-mailed statement. While the system still includes preferential treatment of citizens from the EU, of which Switzerland isn’t a member, the European Commission said that any system featuring restrictions of movement is “irreconcilable” with EU-Swiss treaties.

The Swiss government’s step comes in response to a national referendum in February that required it to introduce measures to “stop mass immigration.” A fifth of Switzerland’s 8 million inhabitants aren’t citizens. The majority of newcomers come from EU states such as Italy and Germany, who in the last decade have been allowed to take up jobs in Switzerland without special permission, thanks to agreements covering a variety of topics including border protection, the free movement of persons and academic research.

‘Not Compatible’

“You can twist and turn as you like, the new models are either unconstitutional or not compatible” with the agreements, Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told reporters in Bern today, referring to the fact that the referendum, which was backed with a majority of less than 20,000 votes, became part of the Swiss constitution. Even so, the government wants to start talks with the bloc in the “autumn,” she said.

In response to the Feb. 9 vote, officials in Brussels halted the Erasmus university student exchange program and also suspended talks on tying Swiss utilities to the EU energy market, saying a renegotiation of the deals to include immigration restrictions weren’t possible. That view was reiterated today.

“The commission has no intention of renegotiating the Free Movement of Persons Agreement with the objective of introducing quotas and national preference,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for European Union foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton, said in an e-mailed statement. “Quantitative limits and national preference are contrary to our treaties. Negotiating them is not an option for the commission.”

‘Cheap Workers’

The new system, which the Swiss government aims to have in force from February 2017 after presenting a draft law by the end of the year, must still be passed by parliament, and it could also face another country-wide vote.

The proposal suggests a national maximum number of immigrants, which will be set every year. Depending on demand, cantons will be assigned an annual quota, which can be adjusted in case there is a higher need. The quotas will be determined considering economic indicators including growth, the unemployment rate and available jobs and won’t feature a target for reducing immigration.

“We can’t just use immigration to bring cheap workers into the country,” Sommaruga said, adding that the new rules aim to promote the employment of people already in Switzerland.

In order to avoid bypassing the rules, the model also includes quotas for short stays of four months to a year, she said, adding that cross-border commuters will fall within the restrictions.

Skilled Workers

The government will differentiate between citizens from the EU and the European Free Trade Association, and those from other countries, with the former being allowed to work in Switzerland even if they aren’t skilled workers with “specialist” status.

Between 2007 and 2012, the Swiss population expanded by an average of 74,000 each year, a rise equal to the size of the eastern city of St. Gallen. Critics, many of whom are politicians from the Swiss People’s Party, or SVP, which spearheaded the referendum, argue the large influx has led to a decline in the quality of life, including a housing shortage and crowded public transport.

The SVP today criticized the government’s proposal, saying it didn’t properly implement the text of the referendum and aimed to blow up the EU agreements in order to reintroduce free movement via a new deal.

According to the Swiss National Bank, immigration helped propel economic output almost 5 percent above its pre-crisis level. The decision to limit immigration will hurt economic growth, according to a Bloomberg News survey of economists, published in February.

The sectors with the highest proportion of foreign workers are the hotel and restaurant industry, IT and consulting, as well as chemicals and pharmaceuticals, data compiled by Credit Suisse Group AG showed.

A quarter of the Swiss economy’s growth since 2008 has been due to immigration, Credit Suisse also said, adding that the health care, real estate and retail sectors would probably suffer as a result of lower immigration.

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