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Sparks fly in EU immigration debate

Blocher senses political skulduggery Keystone

The government has been accused of trying to wriggle out of enforcing a recent initiative to restrict the flow of European Union workers into Switzerland. However, ministers claim they are within their rights to offer an interpretation that meets the approval of both Swiss voters and the EU.

February’s initiative allows the government three years to negotiate changes to the EU bilateral agreement that allows the free movement of persons to Switzerland. But the rightwing People’s Party, that was behind the initiative, said the government has already given secret assurances to the EU.

People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper that he has heard from “well-placed sources in Brussels” that “Swiss representatives have signaled that the free movement of persons will continue to be guaranteed.”

In an interview with the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who is also Swiss President this year, recommended a second initiative within two years asking whether Switzerland should continue with bilateral agreements with the EU.

But he denied striking a deal with the EU, saying that the cabinet would seek the best possible solution for Switzerland. The government will put forward proposals for implementing the initiative in the summer that will be firmed up by the end of the year.

Compromise plan

At the end of April, the cabinet struck a compromise with the EU that would allow up to 500 Croatian nationals to work in Switzerland on short term visas. But the EU later said the deal did not present a long-term solution.

Defence Minister Ueli Maurer defended the Swiss compromise over Croatia in the SonntagsZeitung, saying that the restrictions were in line with the initiative’s demands. “To insinuate now that the cabinet with make later concessions [to the EU] is unfair,” he said.

Maurer insisted that the cabinet should be given time to find a way of implementing the initiative. “We must have the freedom to find a negotiated path, even if that should require a compromise on the immigration issue,” he said, adding that voters could challenge that compromise at a later date if necessary.

On Tuesday, the EU is due to agree a mandate to negotiate the future of bilateral agreements with Switzerland, with talks scheduled to begin in May.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR