Opening salvoes fired ahead of EU labour vote

Gerold Bührer explains why economiesuisse favours the extension Keystone

Swiss businesses have launched a campaign to ask voters to accept an extension of open borders to Romanian and Bulgarian workers ahead of an expected referendum.

This content was published on June 16, 2008 - 18:05

On Monday, the Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, underlined its support for the extension to the newest European Union members. The pact is mainly being challenged by rightwing parties.

economiesuisse warned that the EU would likely cancel a raft of other bilateral agreements if the free movement of people pact was rejected.

Federation president Gerold Bührer insisted that safeguards to protect Switzerland from wage dumping were working.

"While the opponents of the bilateral path recycle their old and disproved arguments and try to stir up fears, the facts point to its success," he said.

The opponents Bührer referred to include the rightwing Swiss People's Party and the far-right protest movement, the Lega dei Ticinesi. They are widely expected to force a referendum on the issue that must take place by the end of May 2009.

The People's Party claims that the extension is only in the interest of the EU and Switzerland will not see any direct benefits.

However, a majority in parliament sees it differently. Earlier this month, it approved both the extension of the labour agreement to Bulgaria and Romania and the renewal of an existing bilateral treaty covering the other EU countries that is due to expire next year.

Union support

The Swiss Federation of Trade Unions also appeared to agree with economiesuisse and parliament when it announced on Monday that it would not initiate or support a referendum to challenge the labour accords.

And Edi Engelberger, president of the small and medium sized enterprises (SME) association, argued that companies are already seeing the benefits from the existing bilateral accords.

"The agreement represents an opportunity for SMEs by facilitating the recruitment of European workers, and at the same time, offering access to more than 100 million consumers. 'Swissmade' products and services have a comparative advantage in this extended market," he said.

"Termination of this agreement would be a catastrophic scenario for SMEs. Switzerland would lose its privileged access to the European market."

Economiesuisse revealed a survey in April that showed 97 per cent of companies supporting free movement of workers from Bulgaria and Romania.

Single vote

Bührer told swissinfo that closer cooperation with eastern European countries represented an opportunity rather than a threat.

"Growth rates in these countries have been in the double digits in the last few years, so it is important to have those markets open for our export industry," he said.

But he was disappointed that people would have to vote on renewing existing labour agreements and extending the accord to Bulgaria and Romania at the same time. Parliament agreed last week to combine both issues into one vote in the event of a referendum.

"I personally would have preferred two separate votes rather that this combined version, but the business community has always said that we can live with either option," he added.

"This might have a negative impact on voters, but I believe that the argument to continue our bilateral path will be so convincing that we will get a yes vote."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

In brief

The EU, with its 490 million consumers, is Switzerland's most important trading partner

Switzerland's business community has come out in favour of extending and continuing the labour accord, according to a survey published in April.

About 97% of the companies and associations surveyed by the Swiss Business Federation supported the free movement of workers with Bulgaria and Romania.

About 50% of the companies surveyed by the Association of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises came out in favour of the move

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Switzerland and the EU

Voters in 1992 narrowly rejected joining the European Economic Area treaty, a halfway house to EU membership.

Instead Switzerland and the EU concluded 16 bilateral accords, which came into force in 2002 (extended in 2006) and 2005 respectively. They mainly cover trade and labour as well as asylum, customs and tax issues.

Under the terms of the first package of bilateral treaties with Brussels Switzerland can review the labour deal by mid-May 2009. Refusal to continue the deal would result in the whole set of accords being suspended.

Negotiations are underway on an electricity agreement. Switzerland also aims at concluding a free-trade accord on agriculture.

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