Swiss vote on letting in Romanians, Bulgarians

Publish date: 09-02-2009
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An anti-foreigner campaign spurred by deepening economic gloom is sending Swiss voters back to the ballot box in a referendum that could unravel the country's laboriously negotiated ties to the European Union.

The vote Sunday on whether to admit Romanian and Bulgarian workers to the wealthy Alpine republic recalls a 2005 referendum in which the Swiss decided to expand the EU accord on free labor movement to include the 10 new members of the union at the time.

A survey by the widely respected polling institute gfs.bern published last week indicated that support is growing to exclude Romanians and Bulgarians, but still falls short of the number approving the government's aim to broaden the accord.

Some 50 percent of voters would vote in favor, while 43 percent said they would vote against, said the poll, which had a margin of error of 2.9 percent. A month earlier 49 percent favored the government plan versus 40 percent against.

As the global economic downturn stirs worries about a recession even among the Swiss, a campaign spearheaded by the nationalist Swiss People's Party raises the specter of "uncontrolled mass immigration" by poor workers from Romania and Bulgaria.

The youth wing of the party, backed by the far-right Lega dei Ticinesi and Swiss Democrats, collected enough signatures to force the referendum.

Opponents say such fears are unfounded and counter that a no-vote could end much of the country's cooperation with the 27-nation EU based on the so-called bilaterals that nonmember Switzerland negotiated with the bloc between 1993 and 1999.

"If voters say no to the free movement of persons, this will mean the cancellation of our bilateral path," Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz said in appealing for a yes vote.

He referred to the so-called guillotine clause that links the accord to agreements on lowering trade barriers, managing road traffic through the Swiss Alps and other issues.

EU officials have indicated a no vote would automatically cancel the other accords.

Under the free-movement accord, Switzerland allows EU citizens to live and work here in return for Swiss nationals being able to do the same within the EU. The agreement was up for renewal in May anyway, and the Swiss government tied a vote on that with the question of expanding the accord to include the two new states.

Campaign posters featuring three ravens pecking at a small map of Switzerland say "Free ticket for everyone? No!" The Romanian Foreign Ministry has objected to the poster, said Livio Huerzeler, Swiss ambassador in Bucharest.

The government and most of the country's major political parties say Switzerland has nothing to fear from Romania and Bulgaria and that a quota system will tightly restrict numbers of workers allowed in — with only 362 from both countries receiving long-term permits during the first year, increasing to 1,207 by 2016.

The quotas will eventually be dropped.

Currently Germans make up by far the biggest group of foreigners under the accord, with 40,941 compared with 15,351 Portuguese in second place.

Some prominent members of the People's Party have taken out ads to support the deal because they say the economy relies on foreign workers and access to European markets.

"A no to the free movement of persons would be a catastrophe for Switzerland. It would bring many disadvantages to our enterprises," said Peter Spuhler, a People's Party legislator and CEO of Swiss Stadler Rail Group, which produces rail cars and streetcars.

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