The Organisation for the Swiss Abroad (OSA) has come out overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining a key accord with the European Union on the free movement of people.
At a meeting on Friday, the OSA's governing body also appealed for people to vote for candidates in the October parliamentary elections who support the interests of the Swiss expatriate community.
“The free movement of people accord is not a one-way road. Swiss expatriates living in the EU also benefit from the agreement,” said the resolution adopted by 65 votes against three by the Council of the Swiss Abroad.
The governing body called on parties “to face reality” and to assume responsibility in fighting for the continuation and extension of the “crucial” labour accord.
Some 420,000 Swiss - out of a total of nearly 700,000 expatriates - live in EU countries and the 27-nation bloc is Switzerland’s main trading partner.
However, the rightwing Swiss People’s Party in July launched an initiative calling for a suspension of the accord and new negotiations to stem the increase in the number of immigrants.
If the party succeeds in collecting at least 100,000 signatures within 18 months voters will have the final say on the reintroduction of annual quotas for people from EU countries.
In his speech to delegates in Italian-speaking Lugano, OSA President Jacques-Simon Eggly stressed that the continuation of labour accord was crucial because Brussels has pegged a series of other bilateral agreements to it.
His position was backed by delegates who pointed out the role of immigrants in Switzerland’s economic prosperity and the importance of the accord for Swiss seeking residency permits in the EU.
They warned that suspending the agreement would be tantamount to “shooting ourselves in the foot”.
But a number of speakers, notably members of the People’s Party, argued that more controls were necessary to keep immigrants out because they were a security risk and a burden on the pension system.
Ahead of the October 23 parliamentary elections, OSA President Eggly urged the expatriate community to give their vote to candidates and political parties supporting the vital interests of the Swiss abroad.
He said he was pleased to see a record number of expats in the elections.
“It is an encouraging sign that the political parties are becoming increasingly aware of the Swiss abroad - or at least in their vote,” he said.
More than 80 people representing the Swiss abroad are standing in the elections on 13 different lists. There are no expats in the current parliament.
A roundtable discussion with parliamentarians from the five main political parties seemed to confirm the interest in potential votes.
The panel covered issues such as concerns over the strong Swiss franc, immigration, and the controversial reform of Switzerland’s consular network.
The council meeting also discussed efforts underway for parliament to create a special law on the Swiss abroad and to pool expert knowledge on expat issues in one ministry, measures which would give a boost to the community.
The gathering of the 140-strong assembly came ahead of the OSA annual meeting at the weekend focusing on the system of direct democracy.
Swiss Abroad Institutions
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) represents expatriates’ interests at home and abroad. The federal authorities recognise it as official mouthpiece of the expat community worldwide.
The Council of the Swiss Abroad is its governing body and meets twice a year, in spring and in summer, at the time of the annual Congress of the Swiss Abroad.
The council is made up of 140 members of the Swiss expatriate organisations as well as representatives from institutions and the Swiss public sphere.
More than 695,000 Swiss citizens live abroad according to official data from December 2010.
Most of them are registered in neighbouring countries France, Germany and Italy.
There is also an important Swiss community in North America.
Some 135,000 Swiss expats have registered to take part in nationwide votes and in elections in Switzerland.