The Swiss government has confirmed that Croatian citizens will have access to the Swiss labour market despite voters’ wish to re-introduce immigration quotas with the European Union. The move is aimed at unblocking bilateral relations with Brussels.
As part of a transitional agreement with new EU states, Croatian nationals will be given 500 one-year and short-term work permits.
Switzerland will also accept Croatian vocational education and training diplomas in the areas of healthcare, education, agriculture, sport and construction.
In addition, cabinet confirmed an enlargement contribution of CHF45 million ($50.9 million) for Croatia, first agreed upon in March 2013. Through this contribution, the Swiss government will treat Croatia in the same manner as other EU member states which have joined since 2004.
Swiss EU relations
Switzerland is not a member of EU, but adopted more than 120 bilateral accords with the 28-nation bloc.
In 1992 Swiss voters narrowly rejected the European Economic Area treaty, a half-way house of full EU membership.
However, voters repeatedly came out in favour of bilateral accords with the main trading partner since then.
In a watershed decision on February 9 2014, 50.3% of voters approved a rightwing proposal to re-introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens.
A cabinet statement said the government was keen to coordinate current and future negotiations on various issues to “achieve the best possible outcome for Switzerland”.
“It is only a small step in a long race full of obstacles,” said Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter during Wednesday’s news conference. He added that Croatia would be treated like any other EU member country.
Croatia's government welcomed the Swiss decision to let workers in by July and recognise their qualifications.
"We are satisfied that the Swiss have fulfilled what they promised. This is the basis for us to give a green light for further talks on Switzerland's new institutional arrangement with the EU," a Croatian foreign ministry source told Reuters.
The European Commission also welcomed the Swiss move. However, a spokeswoman for Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, said it was a “unilateral arrangement and not a long-term solution”, according to the Swiss news agency.
View from the Swiss press
In newspaper coverage on May 1, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung said the cabinet decision was the result of successful Swiss diplomacy, managing to find a solution both compatible with the EU’s free movement of people principle and demands by Swiss voters for immigration curbs.
However, the editorial warned diplomacy wouldn’t be enough to negotiate another set of bilateral accords that may be subject to a nationwide vote. And it urged political parties to take a stand on the government’s European policy plans.
“Diplomacy can’t decide whether Switzerland should abandon the policy of bilateral accords or not. In the case of the latter, Swiss citizens and the cantons therefore have to reconsider in one form or another the result of the February 9 ballot.”
In a similar vein, Le Temps, made a case for another nationwide vote on the future relations of Switzerland and the EU.
The Geneva-based daily said a vote should take place within the next three years. “[Foreign Minister] Didier Burkhalter makes no secret of it: The Swiss will have to say whether they want the cake, or whether they want to eat it.”
Der Bund and Tages-Anzeiger described the government’s move as a “valuable beginning” for a re-launch of talks between Switzerland and Brussels, “it sets the scene for the repair work needed to fix the bilateral path”.
The editorialist welcomed the government plan to try and negotiate a package of new bilateral treaties, but he believed it would take “quite a bit of creative thinking” to find the right mix of elements that can please both the EU and Swiss voters.
And EU officials in Brussels downplayed Swiss hopes of re-joining the EU research programme, Horizon 2020, soon.
Speaking to journalists in Bern, Burkhalter said he regretted that the government decision was unbalanced and gave Switzerland no guarantees.
However, he dismissed allegations that the move was not respecting voters’ decision to curb immigration.
On February 9, Swiss voters narrowly voted in favour (50.3%) of an initiative to limit immigration. The move by the Swiss People’s Party - known for its anti-foreigner and anti-EU agenda – calls for a reintroduction of quotas, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.
Critically, it also stipulates that Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it. This in turn could threaten other bilateral agreements with the EU.
The government has said it will draw up plans by the end of June to implement the necessary constitutional amendment and draft a bill for parliament by the end of this year. It has three years to define and put into law the initiative.
The 28-nation bloc reacted to the February 9 vote by freezing negotiations and cooperation on issues including electricity, research, education, culture and film production arguing immigration curbs were going against fundamental policy principles of the EU.
For research Burkhalter said that there was a "chance to negotiate this year Swiss reintegration into European programmes". But he added that the collaboration would not be at the same levels as prior to the vote, particularly in terms of Swiss project leadership.
For the Erasmus university exchange programme discussions may allow Swiss students to re-enter the scheme from next year but for 2014 it was "too late", said the foreign minister.
Burkhalter said it was vital to re-launch negotiations for future bilateral relations between non-EU member Switzerland and Brussels. A crucial element is an accord on the recognition of EU institutions and EU law.
He stressed that education, research and innovation are key to Switzerland’s competitive edge and stability.
Burkhalter is optimistic that Swiss voters want good relations with EU by upholding a set of major bilateral treaties in force for more than a decade.
In a first reaction, the Swiss People's Party has warned the government against negotiations with Brussels over an accord aimed at adopting EU laws.
The party accused the government of undermining Swiss sovereignty to regain access to European research and education accords.
The centre-left Social Democratic Party says the government decision is a desperate but unconvincing attempt to mend damaged bilateral relations with the EU. It reiterated its demand to consider all options.