Swiss voters appear to have narrowly backed a new referendum that would limit immigration, according to early projections. The initiative could strain the country's relationship with the European Union.
Swiss broadcaster SRF reported on Sunday that 50.3 percent of voters were in favor of the referendum . Around 49.7 percent voted against the measure. Turnout was about 56 percent, with fewer than 30,000 votes separating the two sides.
Support for the so-called initiative to "stop mass migration" was strongest in German and Italian-speaking parts of the country, as well as rural areas, SRF said.
To pass, it needed to win a majority in more than 13 cantons as well as an overall majority.
The law, which was introduced by the rightwing Swiss People's Party (SVP), sets a limit on the number of foreigners who could move to Switzerland each year. Its passage means the country will have to renegotiate treaties with the EU that permit the free movement of workers.
"This is a sea change in Switzerland's migration policy," SVP chief Toni Brunner said on Sunday. "It is clear that immigration will have to be massively restricted."
The EU Commission expressed its disappointment with the result of Sunday's referendum, saying the bloc will be forced to "examine" its relationship with Switzerland.
"This goes against the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland," said Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly. "The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole."
EU Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the measure's passage meant the country was distancing itself from the bloc's current policy.
"This has far-reaching consequences for Switzerland...and our relations with the European Union," he said. "It's a shift away from the current system of free movement of people."
'Have to find a way'
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter said Switzerland must now find a way to work with the EU following the referendum's passing.
"We have to find a way now. What is the best way to resolve this situation?" he said.
The SVP, citing the up to 80,000 immigrants who enter the country each year, says the population cannot cope in view of Switzerland's small housing and job markets, and that public infrastructure is adversely affected.
Businesses have argued the measure will damage the economy and restrict them from hiring skilled foreign workers.
The referendum also threatens Switzerland's reputation as a traditional home for immigrants and asylum seekers. Nearly one quarter of the country's 8 million residents are foreigners.
dr/tj (dpa, Reuters, AP)