Switzerland has decided not to sign a proposed agreement granting new European Union member Croatia access to the Swiss employment market, the Swiss justice ministry has said.
A spokesman told the Swiss news agency that the deal could not be signed “in its current form” after the February 9 vote in favour of curbing EU immigration.
The two countries had agreed the free movement deal in summer 2013, shortly after Croatia joined the EU.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga called Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic on Saturday to tell her that Switzerland would not be signing the agreement in its current form, because the vote has created a “new constitutional provision,” Sommaruga’s spokesman Philipp Schwander said. The two ministers talked about the consequences of the immigration initiative as well as the next concrete steps, he said.
Under the original agreement – which would have been subject to voters’ approval – Croatians would have had access to the Swiss job market, but non-EU member Switzerland would have been able to impose restrictions and set quotas for up to a decade after the accord had officially been implemented.
Sommaruga has also informed Brussels about the need for the deal to be revised, Schwander said, adding that Switzerland was keen to find a solution that did not discriminate against the Croatians.
For the Croatian ambassador to Bern, Aleksandar Heina, it is urgent to conclude a deal. “It certainly won’t be possible to wait a long time,” he told the Sunday newspaper NZZ am Sonntag.
But the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, the driving force behind the initiative, wants to go further. In an interview with the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper published on Sunday, its president, Toni Brunner, called for the government to swiftly limit immigration from eastern Europe to prevent a mass influx of foreigners this summer. He said temporary limits on immigration from eight countries which expire in June needed to be extended.
Free movement of people
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.
The Swiss electorate has voted three times so far on the free movement of people.
In May 2000, it approved a first bilateral package and with it the free movement accord by a large majority. In 2005 and 2009, voters approved the extension of the treaty to new EU member countries, mostly in eastern Europe.
A week ago voters narrowly backed the “against mass immigration” initiative to bring back strict quotas for immigration from EU countries. Supporters had argued that free movement had put pressure on sectors such as housing, health and salaries.
However, opponents, which included the government and many in the business world, said that free movement was important for the Swiss economy, particularly in terms of attracting skilled staff from abroad.
Around a quarter of Switzerland’s population is foreign.
The EU, Switzerland’s largest trading partner, has said that it would reassess its relations with Switzerland “as a whole” in the wake of the vote.
The initiative gives the Swiss government three years to renegotiate its agreements with the EU.
The government has already indicated that it plans to draw up a strategy to implement the new rules outlined in the initiative by the end of June. A bill for parliament to approve is expected by the end of this year, so that the quota system can come into force by February 2017. Voters might still be asked to have the final word on the legal amendment.
swissinfo.ch and agencies