Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann speaks during the welcome night at the world's biggest computer and software fair CeBit in Hanover, Germany, March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Nigel Treblin(reuters_tickers)
ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland remains confident of reaching a deal with the European Union to limit immigration before a February 2017 deadline, the Swiss president told a newspaper on Thursday, even though talks are on hold until after Britain's Brexit vote.
The Swiss government is looking to enforce a binding 2014 referendum vote requiring immigrant quotas. But such limits would violate a bilateral pact with Brussels guaranteeing freedom of movement for EU workers.
Talks are on hold until after Britain's June 23 national vote on whether to leave the bloc, as Brussels is worried they could encourage the British 'Out' camp, a senior Swiss official said in February.
"I remain confident," President Johann Schneider-Ammann told the Neue Zuercher Zeitung, adding that it was in the interest of the EU to keep normal relations with Switzerland.
Switzerland is keen to find a way to at least minimise the confrontation with their biggest trading partner.
The main Swiss plan involves introducing a "safeguard clause", through which curbs would be imposed when immigration in Switzerland exceeds a certain threshold.
"European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker told me at the beginning of the year in Brussels: You have made your decision. Now it's down to you to present proposed solutions. We're working on that," Schneider-Ammann was quoted as saying.
The Swiss government has until February next year to implement the 2014 referendum, though Schneider-Ammann told the NZZ the government could seek an extension if an agreement with Brussels was not reached by then.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU but has signed a host of bilateral agreements. The 2014 referendum has jeopardized other Swiss-EU treaties governing bilateral economic ties because they stand or fall together.
Schneider-Ammann said the conclusion of the Brexit vote would kick off a race to make progress in the talks before the summer break in Brussels.
"We will prepare very well," he was quoted as saying. "We will probably not achieve a detailed agreement in summer. But we should be able to outline the main thrust."
(Reporting by Joshua Franklin; Editing by John Miller and Raissa Kasolowsky)