Switzerland plans to impose fewer limits on workers from the European Union than on those from other countries in a proposal for a draft law on immigration curbs, the cabinet has announced.
The law will set immigration quotas, as voters accepted in February, but softer rules for EU citizens may reduce retaliatory measures from Brussels and big neighbours such as Germany and France.
Switzerland is not part of the EU but has signed agreements with the 28-nation bloc, including on free movement of labour, partly to ensure its access to European markets.
"Admission for nationals of EU and EFTA states should be less restrictively regulated than for persons from third countries," the government said in a statement on Friday.
"In contrast to third-country nationals, EU and EFTA nationals may still be admitted even if they lack specialist qualifications. Switzerland will continue to have a dual-track admission system."
It did not specify exactly what restrictions the new law would impose on EU citizens.
The government said it had refrained from setting a fixed, inflexible target for reducing immigration in its proposal for the law, which will come into force in 2017.
The Swiss authorities want the free movement accord be adapted to the new constitutional article, but the EU is unlikely to be receptive. Free movement of labour is one of the EU's fundamental principles and officials have told Switzerland it cannot cherry-pick the benefits of market access without accepting the obligations it entails.
The European Commission reacted swiftly, denouncing the Swiss proposal as "irreconcilable" with a pact that since 2002 has allowed Swiss and EU citizens to cross the border freely and work on either side as long as they have a contract or are self employed.
"Quantitative limits and national preference are contrary to our treaties. Negotiating them is not an option for the Commission," Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said.
The EU has already postponed negotiations for Switzerland to participate in multibillion-dollar research and educational schemes as a result of the February vote.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said on Friday that it would be extremely difficult to reach any kind of compromise with the EU. “You can turn it any way you want, but fundamentally the new constitutional article is incompatible with free movement,” she warned.
The government, she added, was aware though that it could not go against voters’ wishes, but refused to speculate what would happen if the free movement accord was denounced by Brussels.
Quotas will be imposed not only on annual residence permits, but also on short-stay permits covering periods from four to 12 months.
Priority will be given to people already residing in Switzerland when permits are issued. Cross-border workers will also be subject to quotas, while cantons will be allowed to impose further restrictions to protect the local labour market.
The federal authorities will set quotas after consulting migration and labour market specialists, as well as employers and unions. The cantons will also be allowed to state their requirements.
Residents will have first priority for jobs, and employers will have to prove there is no one available for a position before hiring a foreigner. Foreign workers could also be hired in larger groups if there is a shortfall of labour.
The government also hopes to call on local workers to make up for shortfall. According to Sommaruga, there are 300,000 employees who are not used enough.
The cabinet decided not to reintroduce a special permit for seasonal workers. Even people working for a short period in Switzerland will be allowed to bring their families.
“We do not want to repeat the errors of the past, tearing families apart and creating a population of poorly-integrated workers,” said Sommaruga.
The government, which has three years to implement the new constitutional article, will present draft legislation later this year.
People's Party unhappy
The plan was criticised by the article's chief backers, the rightwing Swiss People's Party, who accused the government of deliberately provoking the EU with a hard line approach in the hope that its rejection might pave the way for a new vote.
"Under no circumstances will the People's Party accept that the new law is thwarted in such a manner," said the party.
The party, which has grown rapidly since the 1980s and is now the biggest party in parliament, has made opposition to immigration a key message.
In its campaign for the initiative, it tapped into fears that Swiss culture is being eroded by foreigners, who account for nearly a quarter of the population.