Voters in Switzerland have narrowly backed a plan to limit immigration in a blow for the government after it had warned that the measure could harm the Swiss economy and relations with the European Union.
Swiss public television station SRF reported that 50.3 per cent of voters backed a proposal by the nationalist People’s Party to introduce quotas for all types of immigrants. About 49.7 per cent voted against the plan.
The difference between the two sides was fewer than 30,000 votes, with a turnout of about 56 per cent.
The decision means that the Swiss government will need to renegotiate treaties on the free movement of workers that it had painstakingly hammered out with the EU.
Until now, citizens from most EU member states could live and work in Switzerland with little formality, while Swiss citizens could do the same in the 28-nation bloc that encircles the Alpine nation.
Two years ago, Switzerland introduced quotas for immigrants from eight central and eastern European nations, a move that already drew heavy criticism from the EU.
Ahead of yesterday’s referendum, business groups warned that many of the 80,000 people who moved to Switzerland last year are vital for the country’s economy, and curtailing immigration further could also cost Swiss citizens’ jobs.
Urs Schwaller, a politician with the centrist Christian People’s Party, said: “We always thought the argument about jobs would win people over. Clearly that wasn’t enough.”
Mr Schwaller said the Swiss government would now need to launch a diplomatic offensive, explaining to the EU that its hands are bound by the referendum while trying to avoid sanctions from Brussels.
“We need to show the European Union that we’re a reliable partner,” he said.
The new proposal forces the government to draft a law extending quotas to immigrants from Western Europe and introduce limits on all foreigners’ rights to bring in family members or access Swiss social services.
Almost a quarter of the eight million people living in Switzerland are foreigners. This is partly due to Switzerland’s healthy economy and high salaries.
But Switzerland’s restrictive citizenship laws also mean many people who were born in the country or have lived there for a long time don’t have a Swiss passport, inflating the share of foreigners compared with other countries.
The People’s Party – which has more than a quarter of seats in the lower house of Parliament – launched a huge campaign in favour of limiting immigration, hoping to emulate the success of other recent referendums that have targeted foreigners.
Some posters depicted a heavily veiled woman beneath the headline “1 million Muslims soon?”
According to official figures, about 500,000 people in the nation identify themselves as Muslim, many of them former refugees who fled to Switzerland during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. However, only a minority are actively religious.