Switzerland will renew restrictions on immigration from eight European countries starting from May, citing a steady increase in foreigners in the Alpine nation. The decision drew sharp criticism from EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton, who said it ran counter to agreements between Switzerland and the 27-member EU bloc.
Starting next month, Switzerland will extend the quotas it already imposes on immigrants from eight central and eastern EU countries including Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, and apply new immigration quotas to 17 other EU countries including the UK, Germany and France.
The Swiss federal council on Wednesday said it came to the conclusion that the quota “is one of several measures which can help make immigration more acceptable and compatible with its needs.”
Landlocked Switzerland is experiencing a strong rise in immigration that has stirred resentment among some Swiss citizens, as competition for jobs intensifies and housing prices rise.
In 1992, Switzerland said no to EU membership and has since maintained and developed its relationships with the union through a series of bilateral agreements.
Under an agreement signed in 1999, Swiss and EU nationals are entitled to move freely between the two territories. However, the agreement includes a 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.
Switzerland’s decision drew criticism from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who said it contravenes existing rules since the quota differentiates between countries.
"These measures disregard the great benefits that the free movement of persons brings to the citizens of both Switzerland and the EU," she added.
The EU is Switzerland's most important trading partner, buying more than half of the country's exports.
Swiss officials on Wednesday acknowledge that the clause was “only an effective instrument in the short term” and conceded that further measures would be required to have meaningful long-term impact.
But they insist the quotas are necessary because net immigration had been running at between 60,000 and 80,000 each year for several years, a significant influx for a population of less than 8 million.
Nearly a fifth of Switzerland’s inhabitants are now from the EU.