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Switzerland opens borders to European workers - not affect EU members after 2004

From June 1 workers from 20 countries in the European Union and the European Free Trade Association (Efta) will have unlimited access to the Swiss labor market.

The government still has the right to reintroduce quotas if it judges that immigration has become too high, but it hasn't stopped the main rightwing party from pushing for a nationwide vote on the issue. The lifting of restrictions is the second phase of the free movement of people agreement that Switzerland, not a member of the EU, but part of Efta, concluded with Brussels five years ago. Until now, workers from the 15 original members of the EU, the two new small EU members Malta and Cyprus as well as Efta countries Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein have been subject to quotas. These limits will no longer apply from June 1, at least for a trial period that will run over a year. According to a 'safety clause' in the agreement, Switzerland has the right to reintroduce quotas for another two years if immigration increases more than 10% above a three year average. „We cannot exclude that the limits will be breached,” said Dominique Boillat, spokesman for the Federal Migration Office. „However, Switzerland is not necessarily obliged to reintroduce the quotas,” he added.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) says that so far the free movement of people has brought the country benefits. „The current growth rates 2.7% last year and around 2% this year are hardly possible without foreign labor,” said Jean Daniel Gerber, head of SECO, on Thursday at the presentation of a report on the effect of the agreement on migration between Switzerland and the EU. "It has helped economic growth by providing companies with the qualified staff which they needed," said SECO spokeswoman Rita Baldegger. But the unions do not share this enthusiasm. „There is a pressure on salaries and working conditions in sectors without a minimum wage,” said Daniel Lampart, chief economist at the Swiss Trade Union Federation. Quotas for long term residence permits were quickly exhausted 15,000 were granted each year to people with a work contract valid for more than a year. But short term permits up to a year were less popular.

The immigration authorities are expecting demand for permits especially long term ones to rise in June and July this year, in line with official predictions. „The suppression of the quotas will lead to short-term permits being converted into long-term ones. This would effectively be the 'normalization' of the status of people who already work in Switzerland,” said Baldegger. But SECO does not believe that there will be a huge wave of EU residents coming into Switzerland. „We do not see any cause for concern about the end of the quotas,” added Baldegger. „Also because the people coming to Switzerland are well qualified. They could easily find another job should there be a less favorable economic situation.”

With the exception of Malta and Cyprus, the measures from June 1 will not affect the EU members who joined in 2004. These mostly Eastern European countries will have to wait until 2011 for full free movement of people to come into effect in Switzerland. A date for negotiations about extending the accord to Bulgaria and Romania, who joined the EU at the beginning of this year, has not yet been set. The Swiss parliament is also due to debate the free movement of people next year. This will allow the rightwing Swiss People's Party, as it has announced, to launch a referendum on the issue. This would give voters the final say on the free movement of people in Switzerland. (nzz.ch)