A anti-free movement campaign poster of the SVP during an earlier referendum on the country’s membership of the Schengen passport-free zone at the Zurich main train station. The right-wing party has been campaigning against the free movement accord with the EU for many years/Photo: AfricanMediaCourier

Swiss voters reject proposal to scrap free movement accord with EU

Swiss voters have overwhelmingly decided to retain the country’s free movement agreement with the European Union, which allows citizens of Switzerland and the EU the mutual freedom to enter, to live and to work in each other’s territories.

A proposal to scrap the immigration accord with the EU, in effect since 2002, was one of five issues on the referendum ballot on Sunday.

About 62 per cent of voters rejected the proposal to scrap the free movement accord, sponsored by the right-wing, anti-immigration Swiss People’s party (SVP), which would like the number of EU nationals allowed to live and work in Switzerland to be curtailed. Final results showed that 61.7% voted against the motion while 38.3% supported it.

The SVP, which is the largest party in parliament, said that the free movement agreement was leading to overpopulation, rising housing costs and a strained welfare system in Switzerland. The Swiss government had opposed the initiative.

The result of the referendum has been warmly welcomed by the EU. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it “a positive signal to continue to consolidate and deepen our relationship.”

The result “upholds one of the core pillars of our relationship: the mutual freedom to move, to live and to work in Switzerland and the EU,” von der Leyen, who is the head of the EU’s executive branch, added.

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.

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

About 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland, a 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 angry about the inaction, led the campaign to get the issue back on the ballot again this year.

Sola Jolaoso

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

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