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EU irked as Swiss clamp down on immigration

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World Trade Organization (File)
10:36 CEST+02:00

European leaders expressed consternation on Wednesday as Switzerland re-introduced quotas for immigrants from eight Central and Eastern European countries.

The decision was taken by the Swiss government on Wednesday to activate a safeguard clause in its bilateral agreement witrh the EU, which will restrict the number of work permits available to people from Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia, newspaper Tages Anzeiger reported.

“The safeguard clause is not the ultimate solution that will solve the problems alone, but it is one of the instruments at our disposal and that is why we will use it," Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga said on Wednesday, newspaper Tribune de Genève reported.

The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, opposed the invocation of the clause, which she said infringed the rights of EU citizens to move freely in Switzerland.

"I regret the decision of the Swiss Federal Council", she said on Wednesday. 

The new EU president, Martin Schulz, also criticized Switzerland for violating the spirit as well as the text of the agreement with the EU, and accused Switzerland of discrimination against these eight countries. No citizen from one EU country should be treated any differently than a citizen from another member state, he said.

Switzerland has been considering activating the clause, which is contained in its bilateral treaty with the EU, for some time.

The country already met the one specific condition needed to trigger the clause last summer. This stipulates that the number of work permits granted to workers from the EU in the last year must have exceeded by at least 10 percent the annual average for the three previous years.

This level was reached last year mainly due to the high number of immigrants arriving from Eastern European countries, finance minister Johann Schneider-Ammann told the foreign affairs policy commission in January.

Many of the countries affected have reacted angrily to the decision.

"We are confident that the decision violates the agreement," said Vit Kolar, spokesman for the Czech foreign ministry.

The numbers of immigrants from these countries accounts for about six percent of all immigrants coming from the EU to Switzerland.

Immigrants from these countries are most often found in low-skilled jobs considered unattractive by Swiss workers, such as working in kitchens and on farms. Consequently, many commentators dispute that they are threatening jobs in Switzerland.

The restrictions are to come into force on May 1st 2012 and will last for one year, with an additional one-year extension should the government consider that circumstances require it.

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