Switzerland imposes quotas on EU migrants
By James Shotter
April 23 2013
Switzerland has imposed immigration quotas on the rising numbers of European citizens seeking to work there, in a move which threatens to open up another front in the Alpine republic’s array of disputes with the EU.
Switzerland already restricts arrivals from the eight eastern European states which joined the EU in 2004. However, the Federal Council said on Wednesday that, as well as extending those limits for another year from May 1, from June 1 it would also apply restrictions to nationals from other EU states, if certain conditions are met.
The quotas will apply for one year, during which time a limit of 2,180 citizens from the EU8 and 53,700 workers from the rest of the EU will be issued with so-called B-permits, which allow foreigners to work for up to five years in Switzerland.
The federal council said the measures were necessary because net immigration had been running at between 60,000 and 80,000 each year for several years, a significant influx for a nation of just 8m. Nearly a fifth of Switzerland’s inhabitants are now from the EU.
“This constant growth has both positive and negative effects, for example on the economy and the labour market, on the social insurance system, spatial planning, the housing market and infrastructure,” the federal council said. “Today the Federal Council addressed the question of how to deal with the negative consequences of immigration.”
Under an agreement signed in 1999, Swiss and EU nationals are entitled to move freely between the two territories. However, the agreement contains a so-called “safeguard clause” that allows Switzerland to impose quotas if, in a given year, the number of EU arrivals exceeds the average for the three preceding years by at least 10 per cent. This condition is likely to be met at the end of May.
However, the EU was quick to criticise the move, with Lady Ashton, its foreign policy chief, saying that she “regretted” the Swiss government’s decision.
“The measures adopted today by the Swiss government are contrary to the agreement on the Free Movement of Persons, since they differentiate between groups of member states,” she said.
The Swiss business lobby, Economiesuisse, acknowledged that popular concerns about the impact of high immigration could not be ignored, but urged the Swiss government to strive to prevent the quotas doing further damage to Switzerland’s difficult relations with the EU.
For several years, the EU has been ratcheting up the pressure on Switzerland to deal with the billions of euros of untaxed money thought to be managed by its banks. This year relations have been strained further, as the bloc has also pushed Switzerland to reform the low tax rates it offers multinational companies.
In addition to its concerns about the impact on bilateral relations, Economiesuisse also warned the Swiss government that the restrictions could hurt the country’s businesses.
“For businesses, peripheral regions, and farmers, this decision has big implications. Against an economic backdrop which continues to to be difficult, and given the shortage of skilled employees, these groups depend on an open labour market and will now have to reckon with hiring problems,” the lobby group said.
The Federal Council said that it was aware the safeguard clause was “only an effective instrument in the short term” and conceded that further measures would be required that have a long-term impact.