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BERNE (Reuters) - More immigrants from the European Union entered Switzerland than ever before in 2013, the year before Swiss voters put their country at odds with Brussels by backing a cap on immigration from the bloc.
A net 66,200 EU citizens emigrated to Switzerland last year, the highest number since a free movement of people pact came into force in 2002, the State Secretariat for Economics (SECO) said in its annual report which examines the effect of the agreement on the Swiss economy.
The SECO figures pre-date February's surprise vote in favour of imposing tighter immigration controls following a campaign which tapped into fears that Swiss culture is being eroded by foreigners, who account for nearly a quarter of the population.
Switzerland said last month it would introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens from 2017, sparking a sharp reaction from the European Union which dismissed the plans as incompatible with the pact that guarantees the free movement of workers.
The SECO report said limits on immigration, given Switzerland's current economic and demographic conditions, could have negative repercussions on the country's growth potential and labour market, while the department's director praised the impact of the free-movement pact.
"Whatever its fate may be, the current free movement of people agreement has strengthened the competitiveness of businesses in Switzerland and has enabled the Swiss economy to post above-average growth in recent years," SECO Director Marie-Gabrielle Ineichen-Fleisch told journalists in Berne.
More than 60 percent of the European immigrants came to Switzerland to work, the SECO said. When immigration from non-EU countries is included the net figure stood at 88,000 people, it said.
Since the financial crisis in 2008 the number of workers coming from southern and eastern European member states has increased, the report also found. In the early years of the free-movement pact, the immigration balance was characterised by Germans coming into the country.
The immigration initiative, which passed by fewer than 20,000 votes, has deeply unsettled the Swiss business establishment and the SECO report found net immigration is closely linked to Switzerland's economic growth.
Georg Lutz, political science professor at the University of Lausanne, said Switzerland's need for workers from abroad was nothing new and would continue for the foreseeable future.
"Switzerland has been an immigration country for the last 50 years roughly," Lutz said. "If you look at the demographics, Switzerland will need immigrants to keep the economy going."
The EU intake in 2013 represented around 0.8 percent of Switzerland's roughly 8.1 million population.
According to figure from the Federal Department for Statistics, the number of foreign residents has risen by just over 30 percent since 2002. The increase in Swiss residents over the same period is a little more than 6 percent.
Lutz said he was convinced the government would find a solution to the immigration question that would not do too much harm to the Swiss economy and that women could be a solution to any resulting skills shortage.
He said: "There is still a huge drop-out rate, compared to other countries, for women from the work force when they have children."
(Reporting by Alice Baghdjian and Joshua Franklin in Zurich; Editing by Toby Chopra)