The SVP, the largest party in the Swiss parliament, accused the other parties of caving in to Brussels. Photograph: Anthony Anex/EPA
Switzerland has rejected imposing quotas on EU workers in a bid to preserve its close economic ties with the bloc, opting instead to try to curb immigration by giving residents priority in new job vacancies.
Parliament voted to pass a compromise immigration law, marking a significant climbdown which the country hopes will allow it continued enhanced access to the EU’s single market following a 2014 referendum vote to cap EU immigration.
In a standoff with close parallels to Britain’s situation after the Brexit vote, Brussels had refused to budge from its stance that any attempt to restrict free movement by caps or quotas would automatically exclude Switzerland from the single market.
A quarter of Switzerland’s population – about 2 million people – are foreigners, including 1.4 million EU citizens, with 365,000 more commuting in daily from neighbouring EU countries France, Germany and Italy.
The new law, to which the EU is expected to respond formally next week, requires employers in sectors or regions with above-average unemployment to advertise vacancies at job centres and give locals priority before recruiting from abroad.
While there are exemptions, for example for family firms, companies that violate the law will face fines of up to 40,000 Swiss francs (£31,000).
However, to the fury of the populist, ultra-conservative SVP party, which backed the referendum, there is no mention of quotas – and cross-border commuters to Swiss jobs, plus EU residents in Switzerland, will be able to register with a Swiss job centre and get the same treatment as Swiss citizens.
The SVP, the largest party in parliament, accused the other parties of caving in to Brussels and abandoning Swiss sovereignty. Its MPs held up signs during the final vote saying “mass immigration continues” and warning that by dodging the requirements of the referendum, in which 50.3% of voters called for immigration caps, the law was an “unprecedented breach” of the country’s constitution.
The unexpected 2014 referendum result resulted in Switzerland being ejected from the EU’s science research programme and the Erasmus student exchange programme, and risked tearing up its special trade deal with the bloc, which takes more Swiss exports than any other market.
Switzerland’s complex economic and trading relations with the EU are governed by a web of more than 120 bilateral treaties that are all linked by a “guillotine clause” – meaning that if one is violated, they all collapse.
There is no firm guarantee that Brussels will accept the carefully crafted Swiss solution. The commission has repeatedly said it will need to be assured that it does not discriminate against EU workers.
Brussels will also be wary of creating a flexible precedent that Britain might be able to use in negotiating a new bilateral relationship with the bloc, in particular in trying to manage migration while preserving single market ties.
Both Swiss and EU officials have said the UK’s vote to leave the EU had considerably complicated talks between the two sides.