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Brussels Regrets Referendum Result In Switzerland

The Swiss parliament building in the capital, Bern
The European Union says it regrets a referendum vote in Switzerland to curb immigration from EU countries.

Final results from the February 9 referendum showed a narrow “yes” vote of 50.3 percent.

The European Commission, the EU’s governing body, said the vote went against its principle on the free movement of people.

The commission said it would examine the implications of the vote on its future relations with Switzerland, a landlocked west-central European country of around 8 million people.

While neutral Switzerland is not a member of the EU, its immigration policy is based on the free movement of citizens to and from the EU.

Switzerland, which is regarded as an economic dynamo, has a package of agreements covering its relations with the EU that went into effect in 2001.

Some politicians, including ministers of EU powers France and Germany, have suggested that if Switzerland follows through and suspends immigration from the EU, the country’s preferential trade and economic ties with the EU may have to be reevaluated.

The Swiss government had urged a “no” vote on the measure, which was spearheaded by the right-wing Swiss People's Party.

The outcome obliges the government to turn the initiative into law within three years. This is expected to include imposing restrictions on residence permits for foreign nationals, including cross-border commuters and asylum seekers.

Foreigners make up about one-quarter of Switzerland’s population, a percentage that is second in Europe only to Luxembourg. Around 70,000 immigrants seek residency in Switzerland each year.

Analysts say the result reflects growing concerns among ordinary Swiss that immigrants are eroding the nation's distinctive Alpine culture and contributing to rising rents, crowded transport, job competition, and increasing crime rates.

With unemployment high, particularly among young people, in many parts of the EU, analysts say efforts could intensify to replicate the Swiss result in other countries, where antiimmigration parties are part of the political alignment and in some cases gaining popular support.

This Swiss voter said economic fears were behind the “yes” vote.

"Everything is about the economy because people are afraid that immigrants will come here en masse and take their jobs, which, in my opinion, is wrong," said one voter.

Another voter, Jeremy Saiti, also noted frustrations over a perceived diminishing of opportunities, particularly for young people.

"There are many young Swiss who have finished their internship but have no work, with young French who have taken their place, and I understand them," Saiti said. "But I voted 'no' because we are at the heart of Europe. But maybe Switzerland is the laboratory of Europe and what is going on here will happen in Europe in the coming year or the next few years."

European Parliament President Martin Schulz said the EU was almost certain to review its accords with Switzerland in the wake of the vote.

"On the other side, we have to take note of the results," Schultz said. "I think the European Union has agreements with Switzerland. [In these] agreements between us and Switzerland, free movement of EU citizens is guaranteed. And now, in the follow-up of this referendum, Switzerland has to modify laws and to limit free movement also for EU citizens, then we have to react, and to discuss and perhaps to renegotiate the agreement with Switzerland."

The EU is Switzerland's biggest trading partner, taking more than $120 billion worth of Swiss goods in 2013, according to Reuters.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and dpa