Mon, Feb 09, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Unsettled Swiss to vote on immigration from EU countries

AFP , GENEVA, SWITZERLAND

Swiss voters went to the polls yesterday to decide whether or not to continue to allow unrestricted immigration from the EU, with the country’s ties with its European neighbors hanging in the balance.

Postal voting has already begun on the government’s attempt to prolong an accord on free movement of labor — which also provides some 400,000 Swiss migrants unrestricted access to jobs in the EU — and to extend it to the bloc’s most recent members, Bulgaria and Romania.

Campaigning has pitted non-member Switzerland’s economic interests against traditional popular fears about immigration and the neutral Alpine nation’s prized independence.

More than 1 million of the country’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, helping to fuel a Swiss economic boom until last year.

Swiss President and Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz recently warned that a “no” vote could topple the pile of bilateral accords, including transport, education and agriculture, that underpin an often tetchy relationship with the EU.

Those agreements also ease an estimated 1 billion Swiss francs (US$860 million) a day in economic exchanges with Switzerland’s top trade partner, official data showed.

“Our country is opposed to membership, but we recognize that we wouldn’t be able to go it alone without ending up in complete isolation, and we couldn’t afford that,” Merz said.

While the latest move is actively backed by the bulk of the Swiss political, business and social establishment, popular support has been timid.

In the last opinion poll released by Swiss state television on Jan. 28, just 50 percent of those polled supported the motion.

However, 43 percent rejected it and 7 percent were undecided, marking a marginal gain for opponents in a month and only a slender advantage for pro-Europeans.

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