Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- A bill currently before the Swiss parliament to bridge an immigration impasse with the European Union may be challenged by a referendum, according to the country’s president.

In a bid to preserve economic relations with the EU, lawmakers in Bern are considering a measure that would sidestep the quotas for newcomers set out in the text of a 2014 popular initiative. Instead, businesses would be required to advertise vacancies at local unemployment offices to give residents a first shot at employment.

“A referendum will be called,” Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann said during a panel discussion on a television show hosted by the publication Bilanz on Saturday. “I’m optimistic we will be able to figure out something useful and that it will then find favor.”

In Switzerland, a popular initiative such as the 2014 vote against “Mass Immigration” is a grassroots form of constitutional lawmaking and calling a national vote requires 100,000 signatures. Referendums to challenge a law already voted upon by parliament require 50,000 signatures.

Parliament’s lower house has already backed the “light” proposal, overcoming opposition by the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party, which spearheaded the 2014 vote. The upper house is scheduled to debate the measure in the coming days.

Were Switzerland to impose unilateral quotas, that would contravene a set of treaties with the EU covering everything from civil aviation to the free movement of persons, and canceling one element will cause the entire set to be nullified. Officials in Brussels have said the agreements can’t be renegotiated. According to a study for the Swiss government, annulling the pacts could cost the economy an estimated 32 billion francs ($32 billion) a year in potential economic output.

Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU. Yet currently citizens of EU states can work and reside in the country without special permission. About a quarter of Switzerland’s inhabitants aren’t citizens.

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Bosley in Zurich at cbosley1@bloomberg.net. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fergal O'Brien at fobrien@bloomberg.net, Kevin Costelloe, Steve Geimann

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