Swiss confirm EU’s key decision on free movement

The Swiss have reached a dead end at the EU Keystone

Bern has acknowledged receipt of a significant letter in which the European Union states that it will not renegotiate the free movement of people agreement with Switzerland. It comes after the Swiss population voted in favour of an initiative to limit EU immigration.

Media outlets had reported the EU’s unanimous decision on Thursday. But an official confirmation from the Swiss side only came on Friday.

Three ministries – the foreign, justice and economics ministries - will now anaylse the content of the text, foreign ministry spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger told the Swiss news agency.

The cabinet will also consider the issue during its meetings in the next weeks and months, he added.

In the letter to Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, signed by the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, the EU states that the free movement of people is one of the EU’s fundamental principles and thus cannot be negotiated or restricted through the use of quotas.

Burkhalter, who is also the foreign minister, told Swiss public radio SRF on Friday that although the EU did not want to negotiate over the principles of the free movement agreement, “it does not however, not want to have discussions and it also wants to negotiate in other domains.” A balance needed to be found, he added.

If a balance could be achieved, there would be a chance for Swiss-EU relations, if not, there would be no chance for the bilateral path. The cabinet wants to fight to achieve a balance, said Burkhalter.

The Swiss government had requested on July 7 that the free movement agreement be renegotiated, after Swiss voters narrowly passed a people’s initiative on February 9 calling for restrictions on immigration from the 28-nation EU. Backed by the Swiss People’s Party - known for its anti-EU agenda – the initiative calls for a reintroduction of quotas, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.

Critically, it also stipulates that Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it. This in turn could threaten other bilateral agreements with the EU.

Free movement of people and jobs within the borders of member states is one of the fundamental policies of the EU, and Switzerland, while not an EU member, has participated under a pact with Brussels. The free movement of people accord has been in place since 2002. 

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