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Switzerland, a member of the Schengen passport-free zone, has some 330,000 cross-border workers from EU countries. Swiss people are voting in a referendum on Sunday on whether to end free movement with the EU /Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service

Referendum: Swiss vote on whether to end free movement agreement with EU

The Swiss will vote on Sunday in a referendum on whether to end its agreement with the EU on the free movement of people.

The aim of the referendum’s sponsors, the right-wing, anti-immigration Swiss People’s party (SVP), is to limit the number of European Union nationals allowed to live and work in their country, a measure to guarantee preferential access for Swiss citizens to jobs, social protection and benefits.

Analysts say a “yes” vote could harm the country’s deep ties to the powerful 27-nation bloc, in what has been likened to a Swiss-style Brexit — even though Switzerland isn’t an EU member.

In the referendum, which also includes questions on some other issues, voters must respond on whether they support a “limitation initiative” that would require Swiss and EU authorities to negotiate within 12 months an end to their freedom of movement accord. If there’s no deal by then, the Swiss could withdraw unilaterally, and ban any future freedom-of-movement deals.

Landlocked Switzerland is all but surrounded by EU members and belongs to the Schengen passport-free zone.

Switzerland has some 330,000 cross-border workers from EU countries, many of them health care staffers who have been pivotal in the pandemic — notably in the French-speaking Geneva and Italian-speaking Ticino regions. Roughly 1.4 million EU citizens live in the country of about 8.2 million, while some 500,000 Swiss live in EU countries.

In a similar referendum in 2014, the Swiss narrowly voted in favour of limiting access of EU citizens to live and work in Switzerland, but parliament dragged its heels and did not apply the popular will — largely out of fear of a negative impact on Swiss society and business. The SVP, largest party in the Swiss parliament, angry about the inaction, led a campaign to get the issue back on the ballot again this year.

Recent polls suggest there’s less support for the proposal now. A 7 September survey found that more than 60% of respondents were against it, some 35% backed it and the rest were undecided.

Opponents of the Swiss People’s Party-backed measure – pretty much every other party on both left and right – say Switzerland shouldn’t create more problems for itself by picking a fight with the EU in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Swiss complex relationship with the EU is governed by dozens of agreements on issues ranging from agriculture to taxation. The EU maintains that rejection of the principle of free movement by Switzerland would result in the country being excluded from the single market.

Sola Jolaoso

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