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Bern-Brussels-London Swiss-EU immigration talks must not be ‘put on ice’

Burkhalter believes an agreement on curbing immigration into Switzerland could be concluded during summer

(Keystone)

Talks between Switzerland and the European Union to reach an agreement on curbing immigration should not be delayed while awaiting British voters’ decision whether to stay in or leave the EU, warns the Swiss foreign minister. 

“We must especially not put talks with our European partners on ice ahead of the British referendum on June 23,” Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter told reporters on Monday in Geneva on the margins of the 31st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

Although an agreement on curbing immigration into Switzerland is “unlikely” before the British vote, it could be wrapped up during summer, the Swiss minister said. 

“It is difficult to continue the talks publicly. But in reality we must continue to work,” he declared, adding that the EU “doesn’t want to take any risks” over the British debate. 

The Swiss cabinet is under time pressure to reach an agreement with Brussels on curbing immigration. But Brussels has said it won’t turn to Bern before sorting out London.  

Controversial initiative

It all goes back to February 9, 2014, when 50.3% of Swiss voters approved an initiative by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party to impose limits on the number of workers allowed into Switzerland from EU and EFTAexternal link countries. Parliament then had three years to implement this – in other words by February 9, 2017. The Swiss cabinet must present to parliament its bill on implementing the mass immigration initiative in early March. 

The main problem is that curbing immigration would violate the free movement of peopleexternal link, one of the EU’s central tenets which Switzerland signed up to in 2002 as part of a package of bilateral accords.  

One possible way-out being discussed in Switzerland is a safeguard clause, to be agreed with Brussels, in which a limit on EU workers would kick in the following year if immigration reached a certain threshold.  

Burkhalter said on Monday: “In all likelihood, we will go to parliament with a safeguard clause to be implemented unilaterally, but we are interested in the talks which could take place in summer.” 

But according to reports in the SonntagsZeitung and Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspapers on February 21, members of parliament from the centre-right Radical Party and the leftwing Social Democrats plan to vote against such a safeguard clause, and overall support for it is waning in parliament and the government. 

Later in the morning, Burkhalter met his Dutch counterpart, Bert Koenders. The Netherlands currently holds presidency of the EU. The Swiss minister also met the new French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

swissinfo.ch with agencies

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