Agence France-Presse | 8 February 2009
Swiss say big yes to EU labour
GENEVA (AFP) — The Swiss shook off right-wing fears over job losses on Sunday, voting resoundingly to prolong an EU free labour agreement and extending the policy to workers from bloc newcomers Bulgaria and Romania.
Voters were asked in a referendum to approve legislation adopted by parliament last year that simultaneously extended the accord and endorsed its expansion to the two new European Union members.
What was expected to be a tight vote ended in a landslide victory for the government with 59.6 saying yes to 40.4 against, according to official results released through the Swiss news agency ATS.
The outcome brought a collective sigh of relief from the bulk of the Swiss political, business and social establishment, which had been pressing for an extension of the accord.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf said the Swiss had made a "good, objective decision with a mind to the future," a view echoed by the top employers’ association and trade unions.
Voters, confronted by tough economic times, had opted for stability, said centre-right Radical Party president Fulvio Pelli.
Bern and Brussels had warned that a ’no’ vote would have torn apart a wider range of interlinked agreements on trade, agriculture and transport that add about one percent to Switzerland’s economic growth.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso hailed the "excellent result," saying it "opens the way to strengthening ties in areas of mutual interest."
The free labour accord, which also allows Swiss citizens to take up jobs in the EU, has been widely credited with helping fuel Switzerland’s economic boom in recent years by overcoming a shortage of skilled labour.
But the extent of the government’s victory surprised observers, after recent opinion polls had given only a slender lead for the pro-Europeans.
Campaigning had pitted non EU-member Switzerland’s economic interests against traditional popular fears about immigration and the neutral Alpine nation’s prized independence.
The fraught global economic climate, which has hit prosperous Switzerland in recent months, compounded the uncertainty.
Opponents in the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) had raised the spectre of a surge in immigration from Romania and Bulgaria, which they dubbed "Europe’s third world," and warned of a threat to Swiss jobs.
"I think that the leap into the unknown, the fears about unforeseen consequences probably prompted those who were hesitant to vote yes," SVP parliamentarian Guy Parmelin said on Swiss television.
But party vice president Yvan Perrin said: "I have the feeling... that we would have won in a month or a month and half’s time because people are starting to realise our fears are real."
Switzerland’s unemployment rate surged to 3.3 percent last month, after falling until recently.
More than one million of Switzerland’s 1.62 million foreign residents come from the EU and western Europe.
Their number has surged by nearly 200,000 since limits on employing EU citizens were gradually lifted from 2002.
Some 400,000 Swiss citizens live in the European Union.
The accords on Bulgaria and Romania include a seven-year transition period that will gradually open up the Swiss jobs market to them.
The focus now shifts to more tense areas of the Swiss-EU relationship.
While the Swiss are looking for more bilateral deals to open up farm trade and electricity markets, the EU wants Switzerland to end regional tax perks that encourage some European companies to relocate offices there.
The newspaper NZZ am Sonntag reported Sunday that EU officials were ready to raise the tempo on the company tax issue at talks on February 13.
"We have to clarify many things and we’re waiting for some decisions so that they can carry on," EU Ambassador in Switzerland Michel Reiterer told AFP.
Also on Sunday, voters in Zurich canton approved a leftist proposal to abolish special personal tax perks that attract rich foreign residents to live the region.