The Swiss abroad have warned rejection of the labour accord with the European Union in next month's nationwide vote would have serious negative consequences.
There are about 400,000 Swiss citizens living and working in European countries. On February 8 voters decide on continuing the labour agreement with 25 EU member states and extending it to Bulgaria and Romania.
"It's quite simple. Brussels will most likely cancel the packet of seven bilateral accords if the labour accord is voted down," says Jacques-Simon Eggly, president of the Organsation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
Switzerland and Brussels concluded a first series of bilateral accords on transport, labour, research, agricultural products, public procurement and technical trade barriers, which came into force in 2002.
Eggly says the Swiss economy depends to a large extent on relations with the EU and it would be "utter madness" to reject the labour – or free movement of people – accord.
He dismisses as unfounded concerns about a sudden wave of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania and a resulting surge in crime.
"These fears are not based on facts. The free movement applies to people with work permits and not to travelling people," Eggly adds.
He says a rejection of the accord would not make sense economically and would be unacceptable from a cultural point of view.
"Our organisation believes in every form of exchange with other countries," says Eggly.
The labour accord has been useful for Switzerland and made life easier for Swiss citizens abroad over the past six years, according to a statement published by OSA. It mentions access to social security services and the fact Swiss diplomas are more widely accepted in EU member countries.
"Swiss are treated virtually like EU citizens. Since 2002 they have no longer needed a residence or work permit," says Jean-Paul Aeschlimann.
The university professor, who is also honorary consul in the French city of Montpellier, is speaking from personal experience as he has been living outside Switzerland for the past 36 years.
Aeschlimann says Swiss voters' rejection in 1992 of the European Economic Area treaty – a halfway house to EU membership – was a shock. " It was very difficult to find a job abroad at the time."
A set of complex conditions made it nearly impossible to hire Swiss personnel for his laboratory in Montpellier.
Aeschlimann's view is shared by most Swiss expatriates in EU countries, as a survey among Swiss expatriates and an OSA congress in Fribourg last August made clear.
"Administrative things have become so much easier and are resolved quicker," says Roberto Engeler, a Swiss economist and senior member of the Swiss community in Italy.
"The old system had only one advantage. You discovered whether you were cut out for life in Italy and whether you could handle its bureaucracy," Engeler says with a smile.
Aeschlimann is convinced that the debate over the labour accord is damaging for Switzerland's reputation, as the focus is primarily on perceived risks and the economic aspects.
"In France the Swiss are viewed as selfish. They only worry about the possible disadvantages of the labour accord and fears their very high standard of living might suffer a bit."
Aeschlimann appeals to his fellow citizens to consider the potentially disastrous consequences of a rejection of the labour vote.
"It does not take much for the EU to make life hell for Swiss expats."
Last year, France suddenly blocked access to social security for Swiss citizens without gainful employment. The bilateral accords meant it was possible to avert a crisis, according to Aeschlimann.
"The Swiss abroad will be the first to pay the price if the package of bilateral accords is nullified," he said.
swissinfo, based on an article in Italian by Andrea Clementi
Switzerland is not a member of the EU but it has concluded 20 major bilateral agreements with the 27-nation bloc.
The labour accord, put into force in 2002 for an initial seven-year period, was extended to eight mostly eastern European countries in 2005 and is set for another extension in 2009.
Under the agreement Switzerland and the EU grant each other access to their labour markets.
Survey labour accord
Two out of three respondents have come out in favour of the EU labour accord.
Two out of three also say scrapping the bilateral accords would have a negative impact on Swiss expatriates in EU countries.
47% say the free movement agreement has facilitated integration for Swiss expatriates in their countries of residence.
The results are based on a survey by the OSA published in 2008.
The Swiss Abroad Council last August overwhelmingly approved the EU labour accord.