A Swiss decision to re-impose quotas on workers from eastern European EU states angered politicians in Brussels who called the move discriminatory. The Swiss justice minister said her country needed to limit immigration.
The Swiss parliament voted this week to impose quotas on workers from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. As of May 1, Switzerland will issue some 2,179 residency and work permits to people from these countries.
Although Switzerland has been a member of the Schengen zone, which permits visa-free travel for all members, since May 2011, the country has decided to apply a special exception that allows the Swiss to re-impose quotas when the country has let in 10 percent more people than the average of the three previous years.
Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the decision was due to an increase in immigration from eastern and central Europe.
Sommaruga said the quotas would help regulate immigration
"Invoking the safeguard clause will not solve all the problems but it is one of the means available to control immigration," she told reporters.
Since people have been able to travel freely into the country some 7,000 people from eastern Europe have arrived in Switzerland looking for work. That's three times as many as in the three years before freedom of travel was permitted.
Criticism from the EU
Several European Union politicians protested the Swiss decision. In a statement the EU's foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the move violated the free movement of people accord.
"This measure is not justified economically, nor by the labor market situation, nor by the number of EU citizens looking to establish their residence in Switzerland," she said.
EU spokesperson Michael Mann called on the country to treat all EU members the same.
"There were exceptions for the new member states until 2011 but these exceptions are over now and according to us Switzerland does not have the right to make a difference between the different member states. We are 27, full stop," he said.
EU Parliament President Martin Schulz agreed with Mann. Schulz said the Swiss move was discriminatory and contradicted the letter and spirit of the freedom of movement agreement reached with Switzerland.
Members f the Visegrad Group of countries, which is made up of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, said the "economic freedom of Europe" should not be weakened at a time of crisis and that their citizens make up about 10 percent of the total number of people entering Switzerland.
Switzerland's symbolic act
In total, some 95,000 people left EU states for Switzerland and about 65,000 ended up staying there.
The quotas do not apply to Germany and 14 other EU members
The statistics led the Christian Democratic People's Party of Switzerland to admit that central and eastern Europeans played a small role in the Swiss labor market. The Swiss Farmers Association also said it was unhappy about the ban on eastern European workers. The group said it feared production costs would increase without cheaper labor from eastern European countries.
Swiss migration researcher Gianni d'Amato said instituting quotas for eastern and central Europeans served domestic purposed for Swiss politicians.
"It's a symbolic act," he told DW. "The Swiss government wants to show the population that it can act when it comes to a hot issue like immigration."
The institution of quotas is one was the Federal Council can show its strength in an innocuous way.
"The decision does not help anyone, but it also does not hurt anyone," d'Amato added.
Rather than actually keeping many people out, eastern and central Europeans will likely apply for short-term residency permits that are not subject to the quotas.
The annual permits issued to eastern and central Europeans will likely be changed to shorter-term visas, he said, adding that such a move would allow farmers to continue to employ foreigners.
The special exception Switzerland is using to its agreement with the EU on the free movement of people expires in 2014. Citizens from 15 EU member states, including Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain and Portugal, will continue to have unfettered access to the Swiss labor market.
Author: Günther Birkenstock / sms
Editor: Andreas Illmer