GENEVA: The Swiss parliament on Friday finally agreed on a plan to curb immigration from the EU, as called for in a 2014 referendum, without jeopardising its vital relationship with the bloc.
The move was hailed by Brussels but condemned as a betrayal by the party behind the original initiative.
Both the upper and lower chambers voted in favour of a heavily revised version of the initiative narrowly voted through nearly three years ago that demanded restrictions on the immigration of EU citizens.
“At first glance, the law really seems to go in the right direction,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters in Brussels.
Ever since the February 2014 vote, Bern has been struggling to find a way to respect the will of the people within a three-year deadline without permanently alienating the neighbouring EU, its main trading partner.
Brussels had reacted angrily to the vote, saying curbing immigration by EU citizens put in doubt a whole range of bilateral agreements Switzerland had signed with the bloc.
The text agreed on Friday meanwhile stopped far short of an initial plan to impose quotas on resident permits issued to EU citizens, which Brussels had fiercely rejected.
Instead, it would 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.
In cantons where the unemployment rate is higher than the national average — currently 3.3 percent — employers would need to post a vacant job at local unemployment agencies before hiring abroad, or risk a hefty fine.
They would also need to bring in qualified local residents registered with the unemployment office for an interview, but after that, they would not be required to justify a decision to go with an EU resident over someone living in Switzerland.
The European Commission appeared satisfied with the text.
“It’s a good sign that this law no longer aims to introduce quotas on the free circulation of EU citizens and does not aim to restrict their access to the Swiss labour market,” Schinas said.
The parliamentary approval of the text and its apparent blessing from the EU appears set to unblock a number of issues that have been plaguing Swiss-EU relations.
The Swiss government said Friday it could now finally expand its open border and labour market arrangements with the bloc to its newest member, Croatia, as it had been planning to do at the time of the 2014 vote.
This, in turn, should allow long-suspended negotiations towards Swiss participation in lucrative EU research and education programmes to resume.
The populist rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which was behind the original initiative voted on in 2014, slammed Friday’s text as a “betrayal”, a violation of the Swiss constitution and a capitulation to the EU.
The party warned that if the Swiss government does not put forward a new text that follows the will of the people, it will launch another initiative for the public to vote on.
Switzerland’s famous direct democratic system allows any initiative that gathers at least 100,000 signatures to be put to a popular vote.
Next time, SVP cautioned, it would be calling for the full abolition of the agreement on freedom of movement that since the early 2000s has allowed tens of thousands of EU citizens to settle and work in the wealthy Alpine nation.
According to the latest official figures, nearly 81,250 EU citizens moved to Switzerland to work between January and October this year — up 7.1 percent from the same period in 2015.