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Expatriates give thumbs up to EU labour deal

Delegates gave their support to extending the EU labour accord and to maintaining swissinfo

(swissinfo.ch)

The Council of the Swiss Abroad has come out strongly in favour of extending a labour accord with the European Union to the ten new member states.

Delegates also heard pledges by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) that its internet platform, swissinfo, would be maintained if parliament resumed its funding.

During the annual congress of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) in Interlaken on Thursday, the council – the OSA's representative body - recommended approval of the accord by 69 votes to five.

The extension of the treaty, which would grant the free movement of people to mostly eastern European workers, is due to be put to a nationwide ballot on September 25.

"Many Swiss expatriates know from personal experience that unlimited access to labour markets is an advantage," said OSA president Georg Stucky.

He added that voters in Switzerland tended to forget about the needs of the expatriate community and were focused on concerns about a wave of immigrants if the vote passed.

There are more than 620,000 Swiss expatriates around the world and nearly 100,000 of them are registered to take part in nationwide votes.

About 60 per cent of the Swiss abroad live in EU countries, including 4,000 in the new EU member states.

Debate

Swiss politicians and officials were out in force for the debate on the issue.

Supporters said a "yes" vote would give a boost to the Swiss economy and ensure the future of the bilateral agreements between Bern and Brussels.

They also said enough precautions, including quotas, had been put in place to prevent salary dumping and abuses of the country's social-security system.

"Switzerland needs the labour accord to remain competitive," said Markus Hutter of the centre-right Radical Party.

Urs Bucher, head of the government's EU integration office, said it was only fair to accept the former Communist countries in eastern Europe as equal partners.

For their part, opponents argued that extending the free movement of people agreement would trigger an influx of foreigners, put pressure on salary levels and burden the welfare system.

Hans Kaufmann, from the rightwing Swiss People's Party, rejected widespread concerns that the EU would retaliate if the Swiss rejected the accord.

The agreement is part of a first set of bilateral treaties concluded between Switzerland and the EU in 1999. They came into effect in 2002.

Resolution on swissinfo

The OSA also unanimously approved a resolution calling on the SBC to maintain and ensure financing for its nine-language internet platform, swissinfo/SRI.

The SBC announced in March that it wanted to cut swissinfo to the bone by closing down most of its language services. The plans prompted a public outcry, notably among Swiss expatriate communities.

SBC president Jean-Bernard Münch told delegates that the public broadcaster was prepared to maintain swissinfo if parliament agreed to resume paying half of swissinfo's annual budget.

Münch said the public debate was triggered by "a series of communication errors" and that the SBC had underestimated the importance of swissinfo to the expatriate community.

Rudolf Wyder, OSA director and president of swissinfo's public-watchdog body, criticised the SBC for its shortsighted plans.

"But maybe the SBC has learned its lesson and is now aware of what a jewel swissinfo is and what it means for the Swiss abroad," Wyder said.

His comment was echoed in statements by other delegates. "swissinfo is the best horse in the Swiss media stable," declared one speaker.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser in Interlaken

Key facts

The are 623,057 Swiss expatriates.
This is about a tenth of the total Swiss population.
62% are based in Europe, with 166,000 in France, 70,000 in Germany and 45,000 in Italy.
71,000 live in the United States, 45,000 in Canada and 26,000 in Britain.
Just over 95,000 citizens have registered to vote.
The OSA was founded in 1916 and is an umbrella group of about 750 Swiss clubs and institutions worldwide.
The Council of the Swiss Abroad is made up of 170 members and meets twice a year.

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