Switzerland approves watered-down law to curb EU migrants

In case with Brexit parallels, voter demand for quotas clashes with EU rules on free travel

SVP members display posters reading ‘constitutional breach’ and ‘mass immigration continues’ after the vote in Bern. Photograph: Ruben Sprich/Reuters

The Swiss parliament passed a law on Friday aimed at curbing immigration by giving local people first crack at open jobs, skirting voters' demand for outright quotas the government feared could disrupt close ties with the European Union.

Now parliament has passed the new immigration law, the focus will shift to how the EU responds; the European Commission was expected to give an initial reaction at its midday briefing.

Brussels so far has shown scant inclination to compromise on the free movement of people – the principle underpinning Swiss access to the EU's single market of 500 million – so as not to encourage Britain as it negotiates its EU divorce.

The Bill’s lack of upper limits on immigration to a country of 8.3 million, whose population is already a quarter foreign, prompted the right-wing Swiss People’s Party to assert that politicians had defied the people’s will in a 2014 referendum.


The SVP, the largest party in parliament, has accused other parties of caving in to Brussels and shirking their duty to stand up for Swiss sovereignty.

Its members held up signs protesting the final vote reading “breach of the constitution” and “mass immigration continues”.

But a clear majority in parliament did not want to risk a row with the EU, Switzerland’s main trading partner, which could retaliate by abrogating other bilateral accords governing trade worth about 7 per cent of Swiss economic output.

The debate in many ways mirrors the situation in Britain, where voters decided in June to quit the EU in part as a way to control immigration, which critics said was putting too much of a strain on social infrastructure.

Nearly 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland and more than 300,000 commute in from neighbouring countries.

The Swiss think this gives them leverage with Germany, France and Italy, whose leaders may not want to have to explain to voters – especially those in border regions with strong populist party support – why they can no longer work in highly paid Swiss jobs.

Passage of the law clears the way for Switzerland to extend free movement of people to the latest EU member, Croatia. That, in turn, will restore Swiss access to the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, which funds research projects. – Reuters