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By razor-thin margin, Swiss voters back tighter curbs on immigration

Sunday's referendum was a close-run race that has raised questions over the European Union's push for flexible labor markets. 

By Staff writer / February 9, 2014

Swiss Interior Minister Alain Berset (l.) talks to Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga during a news conference in Bern February 9. Swiss voters on Sunday narrowly backed proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union.

Thomas Hodel/Reuters

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A narrow win in a Swiss referendum to implement strict quotas on European Union citizens is another sign of how the issue of migration is dividing Europe. With almost all ballots counted, 50.3% of voters favored the measure. 

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Switzerland is not part of the 28-member EU, but it adopts many of its policies. The clearest example is giving residence permits to most EU citizens. 

Now the Swiss have decided that a freedom of movement policy, in effect since 2007, was misguided. Some 80,000 foreigners enter Switzerland each year, ten times more than initial projections. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which led calls for the referendum, claim that foreigners are straining public services and driving salaries down. The conversation has grown more heated in the wake of Europe's economic crisis, which has led Italians and Spaniards to move to stronger economies in the north.

Last spring Switzerland invoked a clause in its migration policy that allows for a cap on residence permits for western Europeans, as the Monitor reported in this story. The issue has electrified Swiss voters. According to the Wall Street Journal, today's referendum saw the fifth-biggest turnout since 1971, the year Switzerland gave women the right to vote.

In the run-up to the vote, Swiss government and business groups argued that migration is key to a dynamic labor market that draws on the best talent across the continent.

This is a familiar debate across Europe these days, especially since Jan. 1 when the restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians were lifted in several EU countries with strong labor markets. 

“Benefits tourism” has become a new buzzword: Politicians in the UK, Netherlands, and Germany have voiced concerns over a tide of Bulgarians and Romanians in their hospitals, schools, and welfare offices.

Switzerland’s clampdowns on migration have tested the country’s ties with the EU, and today’s results will cause more friction. The "yes" vote will also give more wind to the euro-skepticism gaining ground across Europe, which will likely be on display during EU parliamentary elections in May.

Since the founding of the EU, rules on freedom of movement have gotten progressively more liberal, giving EU citizens almost all the same rights as nationals in the countries where they reside. The founding idea behind this policy was that dissolving barriers would create a flexible and functional labor market.

The hostile rhetoric has shone a harsh spotlight on this principle. However, Laszlo Andor, the EU's commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion, recently told the Monitor that the reality is that Europe should anticipate more migration in coming years. 

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