Prague, 26 September, 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Swiss have voted by a surprisingly wide margin to allow citizens of the 10 new member states of the European Union to live and work in Switzerland.
In a referendum yesterday, some 56 percent of voters agreed that workers from the mainly East European EU states could take up residence in Switzerland provided they have a job and can support themselves.
Turnout was a solid 54 percent of the 4.8 million registered Swiss voters.
"My experience has always been that there has been no influx of labor force [from one European country to another]. When the EU was enlarged to include Spain and Portugal it didn't happen."
EU spokesperson Francoise Le Bail today told RFE/RL she welcomed the result of the referendum. She said it is a matter of "great satisfaction" for Brussels, particularly in view of the ease with which the proposition passed.
"This is extremely good," she said. "Also, it is an important move because this referendum allows for implementation of the Schengen and Dublin agreements, and this is very good for the Swiss citizens and for EU citizens because it will abolish controls at the borders."
She was referring to another landmark referendum, in June, at which Swiss voters agreed to join the EU's Schengen and Dublin accords, which allows passport-free travel between participating states.
In Switzerland, business and industry bodies and the government pushed hard for a "yes" vote yesterday, warning that the EU would retaliate if Switzerland rejected the government-sponsored proposal. Right-wing politicians and some labor unions called for a "no" vote on the grounds that the country could be flooded with cheap labor from the East.
Le Bail, in her remarks to RFE/RL, declined to view the EU's approach as amounting to pressure: "It was not pressure, it was simply a legal-institutional explanation, in that if free movement of workers had not been extended to the 10 new member states it would have had repercussions on all the other bilateral agreements we have with Switzerland, simply because it is not possible to apply agreements to only part of the member states, they have to be applied to [all] 25 [members]."
Switzerland, which exports 60 percent of its output to EU neighbors, has a network of economic and other agreements with the EU, and could not really afford to say "no." Some 18 months ago it granted freedom of movement to citizens of the 15 "old" EU member states.
As political science professor at Zurich University, Daniel Kuebler, tells RFE/RL: "It is true that Switzerland stays apart formally from the European institutions but they had to find some kind of arrangement with the European Union because it is obvious Switzerland is in the middle of the continent, and countries of the European Union are the most important business partners."
The success of the two latest pro-integration referendums are in contrast to a vote in 2001 in which 77 percent of Swiss voters rejected opening membership talks with the EU.
Kuebler says, however, the latest votes do not mean the Swiss have lost their traditional sense for independence and neutrality which has characterized them for hundreds of years. On the contrary, he said that "Switzerland, with this 'yes,' has removed the pressure on itself to join the European Union."
In other words, says Kuebler, voting positively on this issue is actually underpinning Swiss independence because it helps Switzerland find its place in the modern, integrating Europe, while at the same time being able to resist the "gravitational pull" of the ever-bigger EU.
Now it can retain its important bilateral agreements with the EU, while at the same time gaining access to the skilled and less-skilled labor it needs to keep its economy running.
EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, and Equal Opportunities Vladimir Spidla, a Czech, said today he is happy with the referendum results. He said they show the Swiss regard the eastern EU states as full EU members, indistinct from the older EU nations.
Spidla also said the Swiss understand there is little danger of a large-scale labor migration from the east.
"My experience has always been that there has been no influx of labor force [from one European country to another]. When the EU was enlarged to include Spain and Portugal it didn't happen. When one looks at the statistics between the EU member states, one sees that [the effect] is marginal."
Of course, the permission for eastern EU workers to live in Switzerland is not on a "come one, come all" basis.
Permission for eastern EU workers is restricted. Initially, only 3,000 of them annually will be allowed to work in Switzerland.
There will also be stricter government controls on "black" employment, in which foreigners work illegally for lower wages.