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Swiss give big ‘Yes’ to EU migrant labor pact

  Swiss voters gave a resounding ‘Yes’ Sunday to an agreement extending the right of European Union citizens to live and work in Switzerland, despite fears of immigrant labor and job losses in the deepening recession.

Official results showed 59.6% of voters backed the deal, renewing an existing agreement allowing migrant workers into Switzerland and extending it to new EU members Bulgaria and Romania. Swiss workers also have access to EU countries.

“The majority of voters recognized that openness is the only correct strategy for an economy that is strongly oriented towards foreign trade, even in economically difficult times,” said the Swiss Employers’ Federation, noting that one in three Swiss jobs depended on links with the European Union. “This agreement is a key agreement for relations between the European Union and Switzerland,” EU Commission President Jose Barroso said in a statement welcoming the outcome.

The Swiss vote contrasts with an upsurge in protectionist sentiment in other European countries, with energy workers in Britain striking last week over a decision to bring in Italian and Portuguese workers to work on an oil refinery, and strikes in France to demand pay raises and job protection.

SINISTER THREAT

Opposition to immigrants led to a referendum under Switzerland’s popular democracy system challenging government plans to renew the existing 2002 accord with the EU.

The populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Switzerland’s biggest party, which called for a ‘No’ vote against the government proposal, had conducted an anti-immigrant campaign with posters of three long-beaked sinister-looking ravens picking at a small map of Switzerland. The SVP was backed by citizens’ groups in Geneva and Italian-speaking areas who resent the large numbers of people across the border in France and Italy who cross the frontier each day to work in Switzerland.

In the event only three small German-speaking cantons and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino voted against the pact, with the other 22 French and German-speaking cantons in favor. “It’s a great relief, it’s really the Switzerland we love, it’s the Switzerland I respect,” Romanian journalist Miruna Coca-Cozma told Reuters Television as she celebrated with Romanian friends.

Switzerland’s other mainstream parties, employers’ groups and unions had backed the deal, which is linked to several other agreements on areas such as transport and agriculture.

Friday’s news that Swiss unemployment had jumped to a two-year high of 3.3% in January had led many to predict a tight result in Sunday’s referendum.

The SVP had warned that foreigners who lose their jobs remain in Switzerland to draw benefits, but voters were wary of damaging ties with the EU, Switzerland’s biggest trading partner by far, accounting for about 80% of Swiss imports and 60% of its exports.

Some 21% of Switzerland’s 7.6 million residents are foreign nationals, many of them filling low paid jobs that Swiss nationals would be reluctant to do. (Reuters)