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Swiss immigration vote angers EU, vindicates far-right


Numerous EU leaders warned Monday that the choice by Swiss voters to impose new curbs on immigration has violated the “sacred principle” of freedom of movement.


The Swiss immigration referendum has sent shockwaves throughout the 28-nation European Union.

“One of the achievements of the European Union is the free movement of people and that can’t be watered down,” Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn warned.
He said that Switzerland could lose easy access to the world’s biggest market if it doesn’t honour that principal.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was even harsher in his discourse, telling RTL radio the EU’s 1999 agreement with Switzerland has a “guillotine clause” that means if one element is challenged “then everything falls apart.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesperson also issued a statement on Monday expressing concern about the Swiss vote.

Worry over foreigners

The vote on Sunday was initiated by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has tapped into concerns that Swiss culture is being eroded by foreigners, who account for nearly a quarter of the country’s 8-million strong population.

Immigration limits were vigorously opposed by Swiss industry and the government in Berne, which is now in the uncomfortable position of having to write the referendum result into law while limiting the backlash from Brussels and big neighbours like Germany and France.

“Switzerland has rather damaged itself with this result,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters on arrival in Brussels for a meeting with his EU colleagues. “Switzerland must realise that cherry picking with the EU is not a long-term strategy.”

Free movement of people and jobs within its borders is one of the fundamental policies of the European Union, and Switzerland, while not a member of the 28-nation bloc, has participated under a pact with Brussels.

Since 2002, Swiss and EU citizens have been able to cross the border freely and work on either side as long as they have a contract or are self employed.

EU officials said the free movement treaty is part of a package of seven agreements that stand or fall together. The accords also cover economic and technological cooperation, public procurement, mutual acceptance of diplomas and licences, agricultural trade, aviation, and road and rail traffic.

“We simply can’t accept these kinds of restrictions, the ones that were approved yesterday,” said European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde. “This will clearly have implications for the rest of the agreements we have with Switzerland.”

Reflecting European discontent

Up until the last moment, Brussels had hoped Swiss voters would reject the siren call of the right. Instead, 50.3 percent of voters agreed with the country right-wing SVP's call to curb migration.

Switzerland's vote to limit EU immigration reflects growing concern over free movement across the bloc, British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said Monday.

Cameron, who is planning a referendum on Britain's European Union membership in 2017, will keep discussing the issue with other EU leaders, the spokesman said.

"What this (Swiss vote) does reflect is that there is growing concern around the impact that free movement can have," the spokesman told a daily briefing. "That is why the prime minister and other ministers have been raising this issue, and will continue to do so, with their counterparts across the EU."

The global financial crash, the Eurozone debt crisis and then a deep recession have made EU citizens wary of what Brussels has to offer, stoking a sense of general insecurity.

Worse still, as Brussels took on more powers to tame the crisis through austerity, EU rules became more deeply involved in their daily lives but to no immediate benefit as the economy struggles and unemployment runs at record highs.

Against that backdrop, it is no surprise that voters are disillusioned and looking for alternatives, analysts said.

"In the 28 member states, a growing number of voters share this same sense of rejection, based on the same fears," said Jean-Yves Camus, analyst at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris.

Feeding the far-right

The Swiss vote could also affect growing anti-foreigner movements in other countries

"What the Swiss can do, we can do too," said Geert Wilders, leader of Holland's extreme-right PVV.

France's extreme right National Front party too hailed "the Swiss people's lucidity," calling for Paris to stop "mass immigration" while Austria's far-right FPO party said the country would vote the same way given the chance.

"With the (Swiss) referendum, it becomes more likely that the anti-Europeans will represent the biggest group in the European parliament, with a quarter of the MEPs," German daily Tagesspiegel said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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