Brussels sees progress in ties with Bern after immigration law

Parliament debating immigration last week Keystone

This content was published on December 22, 2016 - 19:37 and agencies/jmh

European Union officials expressed relief on Thursday that Swiss lawmakers appear to have found a way to limit immigration without violating an accord on the free movement of people.

The European Commission said a Swiss immigration law adopted last week “should make it possible to preserve the integrity of the contractual commitments between the European Union and Switzerland”.

The commission’s statementExternal link came after a meeting in Brussels between representatives of EU countries, the European Commission and Mario Gattiker, who heads Switzerland’s State Secretariat for MigrationExternal link.

Nevertheless, the commission said that more “clarifications and guarantees on key points” are needed to ensure the Swiss crackdown on immigration does not compromise agreements over the free movement of people, which allows the Swiss to access the EU’s single market of 500 million.

“Questions about access to information about job vacancies and full respect for the rights of frontier workers are particularly important,” the commission added.

Immigration saga

Last Friday Parliament voted through measures to implement the 2014 anti-mass immigration initiative, which must be in place by February 2017.

It decided to give locals first priority at job opportunities, but left outright quotas out of the plan, despite voters having approved of quotas in a February 2014 nationwide vote.

Those were replaced by an obligation for companies to prioritise domestic workers when filling posts.  The Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland political group, however, threatened to spark a new public vote to cancel the Swiss-EU free movement of persons bilateral treaty.

Almost 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland and more than 300,000 are cross-border workers commuting from neighbouring countries.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the Swiss parliament's vote on the immigration law and the extension of free movement of people agreement to Croatia.

He said the search for a mutually agreeable solution might finally bear fruit through closer relations between the EU and Switzerland in 2017.

Friday's decision by the government paves the way for full Swiss participation in EU-wide research programme Horizon 2020, beginning on January 1 of next year. Switzerland had been frozen out of Horizon 2020 after the February 2014 vote and given "third country" status with fewer privileges.

"Switzerland has now fulfilled the EU's condition on free movement of people and can be fully associated to Horizon 2020. This is good news for Switzerland, and good news for the EU. It will further strengthen our scientific communities and our very substantial cooperation in research and innovation,"Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said in a statement on ThursdayExternal link.

The EU’s reaction to Switzerland could preview how Britain is handled when it negotiates leaving the EU. Brussels has so far shown little willingness to compromise on free movement of people, so as not to encourage Britain after its Brexit vote.

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