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Top Swiss Diplomat Says EU May Accept ‘Light’ Immigration Plan

  • Voters approved limits for EU newcomers in 2014 plebiscite
  • Roughly a quarter of Switzerland’s inhabitants aren’t citizens

Switzerland’s plan to tackle immigration by giving locals precedence on the job market may be palatable to the European Union, chief negotiator Jacques de Watteville said in a newspaper interview.

In a bid to cut immigration from EU countries without hurting the economy, the Swiss parliament’s lower house has approved a plan that would require job vacancies to be first advertised with local unemployment centers. Lawmakers hope this so-called “light” proposal jives with a key bilateral agreement, the annulment of which could lower economic output by an average of 32 billion francs ($33 billion) a year.

“EU representatives are signaling that the lower house’s decision goes in a direction that conforms with the free movement of persons agreement,” de Watteville, Switzerland’s top diplomat for EU matters, told Tages-Anzeiger newspaper in an interview published on Friday. “If Switzerland goes for a solution that isn’t compatible with the bilateral accords, this could lead to tensions and difficulties with the EU, but parliament knows that very well.”

The Swiss government has been at pains to implement the results of a 2014 plebiscite that requires immigration quotas for foreigners including EU citizens, who currently may take up jobs and residence without special permission. Roughly a quarter of Switzerland’s 8.3 million inhabitants don’t hold a national passport.

Any formal limits would, however, contravene a set of agreements covering matters such as agriculture and civil aviation that are considered vitally important for the Swiss economy, which has already suffered slower growth and a rise in joblessness due to the strong currency.

U.K. Precedent

Parliament’s upper house is scheduled to debate the “light” immigration proposal in its winter session that runs from Nov. 28 to Dec. 16. Some members of that chamber want to make the plan already voted upon by the lower house more stringent.

Britain’s vote in late June to leave the EU has complicated matters for the Swiss, who have been trying for more than two years to solve their immigration standoff. Officials in Brussels asked Switzerland to keep quiet prior to the U.K. referendum, said de Watteville, who holds the rank of state secretary.

“Now there’s the concern of Switzerland being used as a precedent that would prejudice the U.K.’s exit negotiations,” he said.

Separate negotiations with the EU on an institutional framework agreement -- designed to streamline questions of market access -- are continuing, he also said. Some progress has been made, though difficulties remain, he said.

“Switzerland needs legal certainty and market access,” he said.