Swiss voters have narrowly endorsed the introduction of quotas for immigrants in defiance of warnings that the move would upset relations with the European Union and violate the terms of bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU.
An initiative to amend the Swiss constitution proposed by the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was approved by 50.3% of voters today (9 February). The difference between a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ result was less than 20,000 votes.
At 56.5%, voter turnout was among the highest since 1971, when women were given the vote.
The vote revealed a deep rift between urban areas and the country’s western French-speaking cantons, which voted against the measure, and German-speaking, rural cantons in central and eastern Switzerland, which voted in favour.
The divisions recalled those of 1992, when the Swiss with a wafer-thin majority voted against joining the European Economic Area, which integrates non-members Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein into the EU’s single market.
Swiss business leaders had warned that a ‘Yes’ would threaten the country’s access to the single market and undermine its economic boom, which is in part fuelled by the immigration of highly skilled workers from the EU.
Switzerland’s government – a grand coalition of which the SVP is also part – now has three years to implement the new measures. According to the text of the initiative, the government is free to determine specific quotas for particular countries of origin.
The European Commission said in a statement that it “regrets” today’s 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.”
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