BRUSSELS : Switzerland’s vote to end mass immigration threatens to sink a series of accords with the European Union crucial to the country’s economy after the bloc pledged to review “relations as a whole.”
Geographically, Switzerland sits at the heart of the 28-member EU, which accounts for the bulk of its trade.
But it opted not to become a member given its longstanding tradition of international neutrality.
Instead it negotiated accords to deepen economic ties, among them signing up to allow free movement of its and EU citizens.
This is one of the core values of the bloc which Brussels has defended against all comers, including of late Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron plans an EU membership referendum in 2017.
In response to Swiss voters’ decision to restrict EU immigration, the EU executive said EU-Swiss relations must be considered “as a whole”, in line with earlier statements saying Switzerland cannot pick and choose which accords to implement.
Here are some basic facts of Switzerland’s current ties with Brussels and how they may be affected by the Swiss referendum result:
The “Stop Mass Immigration” vote on Sunday targeted a 1999 agreement with Brussels under which Switzerland adopted the EU’s freedom of movement rules.
In effect since 2002, it gave Swiss citizens the right to travel and work freely in the EU, enjoying the same social welfare benefits and ensuring that their qualifications would be recognised locally.
EU citizens gained the same rights in Switzerland.
In 2008, Switzerland also joined the EU’s Schengen Accord which allows passport-free travel between the signatory nations.
Other agreements cover trade and economic ties, aiming to minimise differences on product standards, market access, public procurement, agricultural produce, research, and air and ground transport links.
The Swiss economy is an open system, closely linked to the EU and global markets.
In 2012, EU-Swiss bilateral trade in goods was worth some 230 billion euros ($313 billion), with trade in services worth another 130 billion euros, while investment flows were larger still.
The EU is Switzerland’s biggest single export market so any threat to the agreed base for such a large trading relationship is serious.
The European Commission is also currently negotiating a series of accords with Switzerland to limit tax evasion by EU citizens.
Out of a population of 8.0 million, some 400,000 Swiss live and work in the EU, while more than one million EU citizens have found a home in the country.
Switzerland has always been open to skilled migrants wanting to work in one of the world’s most developed economies, and anticipated that some 8,000 a year would arrive under the 1999 accord.
The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which called and won Sunday’s referendum with 50.3 percent of the vote, says 80,000 have actually been arriving annually.
If the vote results in legislation limiting immigration it will contravene Switzerland’s free movement accord with the EU and in turn could render invalid all other EU agreements, such as in air and land transport.
If implemented, it “would potentially have very serious consequences for our relationship across the board,” an EU source said Monday.
The Swiss government has three years to translate the vote into law.
The European Commission said Sunday it regretted the outcome of the Swiss vote and would have to look at the whole relationship as a result, not just the 1999 freedom of movement agreement.
For the Swiss government, the next step is to draw up legislation to implement the vote outcome, with three years allowed for the process if necessary.