Reuters International

ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland's cantons proposed on Thursday local hiring preferences to help limit immigration from the European Union, hoping to ease pressure on domestic job markets without infringing too much on EU citizens' right to free movement.

The "bottom-up" protection plan comes with the European Commission and Switzerland entering the home stretch in negotiations over immigration curbs that Swiss voters demanded in a 2014 referendum and which must take effect by February 2017.

The talks are crucial for Switzerland, which has threatened to impose unilateral limits next year and will be scrutinised for potential hints of what kind of deal Britain might expect after it voted in June to quit the EU.

The plan put forward by the 26 semi-autonomous Swiss cantons (provinces) envisages giving temporary hiring preference to local people in particular sectors, if net immigration from Europe strongly surpasses levels in other European countries.

Construction, retail and catering generally have the highest sectoral unemployment. A quarter of the population in the affluent Alpine republic is already foreign.

The cantons stressed the importance of preserving bilateral economic accords that ease Swiss access to the EU common market in return for guaranteed free movement of people. These accords are at risk if the Swiss unilaterally restrict EU immigration.

It remains unclear whether Brussels and individual EU members will accept the Swiss proposals.

Citing confidential diplomatic exchanges, the Tages-Anzeiger daily reported on Thursday that Italy, Switzerland's southern neighbour, wants a uniform federal approach, not a canton-by-canton plan, for fear its citizens will face a harder time getting jobs in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton of Ticino.

(Reporting by Michael Shields; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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