Reuters International

Swiss lower house Political Institutions Committee President Heinz Brand (C) attends a news conference on the mass immigration initiative in Bern, Switzerland September 2, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

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By Michael Shields

BERN (Reuters) - Switzerland skirted a direct clash with the European Union over immigration curbs on Friday when a parliamentary panel rejected the government's threat to impose unilateral quotas on foreigners next year in favour of a compromise.

The lower house committee drafting legislation on the politically sensitive topic instead proposed giving local people hiring preference as a way to ease pressure on domestic job markets without infringing too much on EU free movement rules.

The compromise bill, criticised by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) as too vague and a betrayal of voters' demand for quotas in a 2014 referendum that must be implemented by February, now moves to the full lower house for debate.

"We rejected that the government should be able to decide measures that violate the free movement of people," committee member Kurt Fluri of the pro-business Liberals party told reporters.

He said most members of the committee wanted to preserve bilateral economic accords that enshrine the principle of free movement in return for enhanced Swiss access to the EU's common market, which takes most exports from the Alpine republic.

These accords will be jeopardised if the Swiss unilaterally restrict EU immigration.

Free movement of people is a key pillar of EU policy. Britain voted in June to leave the EU, in large part to stop unlimited immigration of EU citizens that critics say pressured job markets, social services and schools.

It remains to be seen whether the European Commission and EU member states will be amenable to the Swiss plans, which may still infringe on free movement even without fixed quotas.

The Commission, which now faces years of similar negotiations on migration rules with Britain, has shown little inclination to negotiate with Switzerland or budge from Brussels’ insistence the Swiss respect free movement rules or lose trade benefits. The Swiss face an uphill struggle in winning any concessions from the EU when the bloc believes any compromise with Switzerland would fuel demands from Britain.

The Commission and Switzerland are entering the home stretch in talks over immigration curbs, with no deal yet in place that could satisfy Swiss efforts to curb the influx into a country where a quarter of the population is foreign.

Swiss employers that depend on foreign expertise are watching the issue closely.

Committee chief Heinz Brand, an SVP member, said the draft legislation unveiled on Friday would severely crimp the attractiveness of hiring people from abroad.

It would favour local people including EU workers who already live here for jobs that open up. It could also require employers to report open positions before recruiting more staff from abroad, and let the cabinet take more measures if needed as long as a joint Swiss-EU commission agrees.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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