Cabinet has announced plans to renegotiate the free movement of people accord with the European Union and to introduce immigration quotas, as dictated by the outcome of an anti-immigration vote one year ago.
As well as approving the mandate to renegotiate the EU bilateral accord, the government has presented draft legislation for the re-introduction of quotas for EU citizens, priority hiring for Swiss residents and boosting the potential workforce within Switzerland, including older employees, women and refugees.
The quotas will apply to cross-border workers and to any foreigners who stay more than four months in Switzerland.
“We want to make it clear to the EU that a solution has to be found,” said President Simonetta Sommaruga during a news conference on Wednesday.
She said the mandate left room for negotiation, but declined to give further details. Switzerland would weaken its position if it laid all its cards on the table in a highly complex dossier, Sommaruga cautioned.
"I understand the impatience, but there is a lot at stake.”
She referred to numerous political proposals and media reports over the last few weeks calling for a re-vote on immigration limits or ballots on the bilateral treaties as well as for a legal framework agreement with the EU.
The government response has come almost exactly a year after voters narrowly accepted the rightwing proposal to stop “mass immigration”. The result spelled complications for the free movement accord, souring relations with the EU.
The deal on the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU came into force in 2002 and is a key element of the first package of bilateral accords between the two parties. Under the deal, nationals of Switzerland and EU member states are entitled to choose their place of work and residence within the territories of the signatories.
Speaking at Wednesday’s press conference, Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said that the consolidation of the bilateral accords with Brussels was a crucial element to secure Switzerland’s economic interests.
The EU is Switzerland’s main trading partner and both sides have concluded more than 100 major bilateral accords.
“Those who belittle the importance of the bilateral accords play with fire,” he warned.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter for his part stressed it was in the interest of both sides to find a solution.
The party behind the anti-immigration initiative, the conservative rightwing Swiss People's Party, has dismissed the government's proposal as "unusable" and accused cabinet of playing for time.
The other main political parties on the left and centre criticised a lack of courage, or they called for more domestic labour market reforms.
The business community is divided. While the Association of Small- and Medium-Sized Entreprises welcomed the government's plans, the leading Swiss Business Federation said the proposals were unrealistic and led to continuing insecurity for the country's economy.
The EU has repeatedly made it clear that the free movement of people principle is not negotiable.
Following meetings between Sommaruga and senior EU officials in Brussels last week, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed to hold consultations with Switzerland.
But the 28-nation bloc still has to agree to open negotiations.
Under the proposal, which has to be approved by parliament, quotas will apply to cross-border workers, relatives of Swiss-based foreigners, refugees and non-working immigrants, such as retirees.
The draft legislation foresees that the cabinet will set the quotas and contingents. It will make its decision based on the needs of the cantons and recommendations from the immigration authorities. However, the government has decided to forego a “rigid defined reduction target” in the interests of the economy.
Priority for permanent residents in the jobs market will be decided on a case-by-case basis. Exceptions to the policy of giving priority to Swiss residents will be made in professions experiencing a skills shortage.
The cabinet’s mandate is to adapt the free movement of people accord to make it possible for Switzerland to independently direct and limit immigration, depending on the country’s economic interests.
“At the same time the bilateral approach to dealing with the EU should be ensured. Both goals are to be pursued to the same degree.” To this end, the foreign and justice ministries will hold intensive talks with the EU.
In order to tap the potential of the domestic workforce, the government is looking into various measures to provide incentives to employers to employ or increase the working hours especially of women, older workers and unskilled labour.
For the first time at this level, asylum seekers with an F residence permit have been referred to as potential members of the domestic workforce, and the cabinet also intends to reduce administrative hurdles keeping them from the job market.
The government has until February 2017 to implement the requirements of the new constitutional article.