Switzerland has voted to prolong an accord with the European Union that allows workers to enter the country freely, thereby extending the benefit to the EU's newest members, Bulgaria and Romania.
AFP - Swiss voters on Sunday agreed to prolong free movement of labour with the European Union and extend it to workers from EU newcomers Bulgaria and Romania, nationwide results from a referendum showed.
Some 59.6 percent said yes to the government's motion extending the agreement with the EU, while 40.4 percent voted no, according to official results from country's 26 cantons released through the Swiss news agency ATS.
Campaigning in the runup to the vote pitted non-member Switzerland's economic interests against traditional popular fears about immigration and the neutral Alpine nation's prized independence.
But the fraught global economic climate, which has hit prosperous Switzerland in recent months, added to the uncertainty, as the last opinion poll for Swiss television showed only a slender advance for a 'yes' vote.
Free movement since 2002 - which also allows Swiss residents in the EU to freely take up jobs there - is widely credited with helping fuel Switzerland's economic boom in recent years by helping to overcome a shortage of skilled labour.
Supporters, including the bulk of the Swiss political, business and social establishment, warned that a "no" vote could jeopardise those gains and a carefully nurtured though often tense relationship with the now 27 nation bloc.
Centre-right Radical Party politician Leonard Bender, a supporter of free movement, said that the current economic climate raised the stakes.
"It's not the right moment to make our position more fragile when cooperation with the European Union has been so fruitful," he told AFP.
But opponents led by the hard right Swiss People's Party (SVP) captured the mood of many voters by whipping up fears about Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants and a threat to Swiss jobs.
The SVP's campaign poster depicted ravenous crows pecking at Switzerland, while the party called Bulgaria and Romania "Europe's third world" and warned of a threat to Swiss jobs from cheap labour.
"We did favour the prolongation, but we oppose the extension to these two countries, because we don't believe they're ready to integrate in the EU," SVP Vice President Yvan Perrin told Swiss television TSR.
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.
Swiss President and Finance Minister Hans-Rudolf Merz recently warned that a 'no' vote could topple a pile of other interlinked bilateral accords covering transport, education, agriculture and techncial standards, that were concluded with the EU at the same time.
Those agreements also ease an estimated one billion Swiss francs a day in economic exchanges with Switzerland's top trade partner, according to official data.
"Our country is opposed to membership, but we recognise that we wouldn't be able to go it alone without ending up in complete isolation, and we couldn't afford that," Merz said.
Date created : 2009-02-08