Swiss immigration: 50.3% back quotas, final results show

A Swiss Socialist Party member and others cut a symbolic barbed wire fence, as part of their campaign to re-impose quotas on migrants The Swiss Socialist Party opposed the return of the quotas

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Swiss voters have narrowly backed a referendum proposal to bring back strict quotas for immigration from European Union countries.

Final results showed 50.3% voted in favour. The vote invalidates the Swiss-EU agreement on freedom of movement.

Fiercely independent Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but has adopted large sections of EU policy.

Brussels said it regretted the outcome of the vote and would examine its implications.

Analysis

This is the result the Swiss government and business leaders most feared: support for immigration quotas, by the tiniest of margins. In Switzerland the voters' word is final, and the government will now have to inform the European Union that it wants to "renegotiate" its bilateral agreement on free movement of people. But renegotiation is almost certainly not an option.

The Swiss have already had years to phase in the deal, and Brussels views free movement as integral to participation in Europe's single market. Exclusion from that market could spell disaster for Switzerland's booming economy: over half of all Swiss exports are sold in the EU. What is more, Swiss employers increasingly rely on highly qualified staff from across Europe - they believe they will lose their competitive edge if they are no longer free to employ who they like.

But the right-wing Swiss People's Party is jubilant that its claims of overcrowding, and pressure on Swiss jobs, salaries and housing, found favour with voters. The big question now is, how will Brussels, already under pressure from full EU members like Britain over the impact of free movement, react?

A Yes vote of more than 50% was needed for the referendum to pass.

The BBC's Imogen Foulkes in Geneva says the vote has shown up traditional divisions, with French-speaking areas against the quotas, German-speaking regions divided, and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino firmly in favour.

A Yes vote means Swiss ministers will have some tricky explaining to do in Brussels, our correspondent says.

'Huge mistake'

In a statement, the European Commission said it regretted that an "initiative for the introduction of quantitative limits to immigration has been passed by this vote.

"This goes against the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland. The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole. In this context, the Federal Council's position on the result will also be taken into account."

Swiss media comment

"Faced with the negative effects of the pressures caused by immigration, voters wanted to send out a strong signal"

Tribune de Geneve

"This is far more than a political slap in the face"

Neue Zuercher Zeitung

"Swiss decision puts [UK Prime Minister David] Cameron under pressure"

Headline in Tages Anzeiger

"It can't go on like this, the influx of foreigners is to be restricted: defying the government, parliament, the business community, trade unions and the overwhelming majority of the political parties, the Swiss people today gave the country's economic policy a severe jolt."

Corriere del Ticino

Compiled by BBC Monitoring

The vote comes amid increasing debate across Europe about migration and the impact of free movement of people.

Switzerland's economy is booming at the moment, and unemployment is low, but many Swiss worry about immigration.

A quarter of the eight million-strong population is foreign, and last year 80,000 new immigrants arrived.

Since 2007, most of the EU's 500 million residents have been on an equal footing with locals in the Swiss job market - the result of a policy voted into law in a 2000 referendum.

But a coalition led by the right-wing Swiss People's Party now wants to reverse this deal, saying it was a huge mistake.

Supporters of quotas believe free movement has put pressure on housing, health, education, and transport. They also argue that foreign workers drive salaries down.

But the Swiss government and business leaders say free movement is key to Switzerland's economic success, allowing employers to choose skilled staff from across Europe.

A poster in favour of the mass immigration initiative There are many people in Switzerland who believe mass immigration is harming the country
A poster against the "mass immigration initiative" Those in favour of mass migration says the policy will benefit the Swiss economy
A Swiss voter leaves a polling box at a makeshift polling station The referendum will be keenly watched by other European nations debating their immigration policy

Switzerland's bilateral agreements with the EU took years of negotiation to achieve.

Our correspondent says that abandoning free movement could limit Switzerland's access to Europe's single market, where over half its exports are sold.

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