Swiss voters narrowly back proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union – the vote echoes the debate in the UK over the impact of free movement.
While neutral Switzerland is not a member of the EU, its immigration policy is based on free movement of people to and from the EU, as well as allowing in a restricted number of non-EU citizens.
The vote, which comes 12 years after an agreement with the EU on free movement of people came into force, could hurt an economy dependent on foreign professionals by increasing red tape and jeopardising bilateral accords.
In a nail-biting vote, 50.3 per cent backed the so-called “Stop mass immigration” initiative, which also won the required majority approval in more than half of Swiss cantons or regions, Swiss television said.
The outcome obliges the government to make the initiative, spearheaded by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), into law.
It reflects growing concern among the Swiss population that immigrants are eroding the nation’s distinctive Alpine culture and contributing to rising rents, crowded transport and more crime.
Opponents of the move say it could exacerbate a shortage of skilled workers in Switzerland, the home of Roche, Novartis, UBS, Nestle and other multinationals filled with foreign professionals.
“Explanatory and constructive talks with the EU are needed urgently,” the Swiss Banking Association tweeted after the result.
Brussels has warned the Swiss government – which campaigned for a “no” vote – that it will have to renegotiate its treaty agreements with the EU, of which the Alpine republic is not a member state.
The row has echoes of the debate in the UK and elsewhere in Europe over the impact of free movement – with David Cameron leading demands for the rules to be tightened within the Union.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who led warnings about the impact of the lifting of restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians to Britain from January, lauded the Swiss vote.
“This is wonderful news for national sovereignty and freedom lovers throughout Europe,” he said.
“A wise and strong Switzerland has stood up to the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels.
“If Switzerland was in the EU, it would not be allowed a referendum on this issue, and even if it was allowed, the European Commission would likely ignore the result….like they did with the French and Dutch referenda in 2005.
“Mass economic immigration in Europe is a serious matter which has caused great unease because it drives down wages, puts pressure on social services and makes people feel strangers in their own land. It is not a matter of race but of space, of numbers and of skills.
“It is a great thing to be welcomed that the Swiss people now have the freedom to decide the number and skill level of the people who they wish to invite to work or stay in their country.
“Last year, 80,000 immigrants entered Switzerland, a country of 8.1 million. The Swiss in their wisdom have decided enough is enough, and want to do something about it. “