Over five million Swiss voters cast ballots on Sunday to decide whether to abandon an agreement with the European Union (EU) which allows for the free movement of people across the country. If passed, the move could severely strain Swiss-EU relations, DW reported.
The referendum was initiated by the ruling right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which claims that the existing pact, that allows 75,000 EU citizens to enter the country each year, has resulted in a significant strain on the welfare system and has led to overpopulation. The ruling party has argued that Swiss citizens should get preference for jobs and benefits in the country.
However, opponents of the referendum have said that scrapping the agreement could have dire consequences for the country’s economy and will also deny hundreds of Swiss citizens the right to live and work in other parts of Europe, BBC reported.
Around 1.4 million out of the 8.2 million people residing in Switzerland are EU citizens, AP reported. Meanwhile, an average of 500,000 Swiss citizens are believed to be living in other EU countries at the moment.
A similar referendum took place in 2014, where a majority voted in favour of limiting access of EU citizens to live and work in Switzerland, AP reported. However, lawmakers refused to enforce the referendum as they feared the impact it would have on the Swiss economy and on society at large. The populist SVP, therefore, decided to reintroduce the issue this year.
However, the move, which some are calling Swexit, has not been popular among Swiss voters. A recent survey by gfs.bern polling agency showed that more than 60 per cent of respondents were against it, while a mere 35 per cent backed it and the remaining were undecided, AP reported.
The freedom of movement measures are being considered alongside four other major nationwide referendums on paternity leave, tax breaks for child care, the right to hunt wolves and acquisition of around $6.5 billion worth of new fighter planes by 2030.
While Switzerland is not part of the European Union, it is still a member of the diplomatic bloc’s Single Market — which allows people to move and work freely in all 27 EU countries as well as in Switzerland. If the initiative is cleared in the referendum, authorities will have a year to negotiate how to go about ending the free movement agreement, first brokered in 1999.
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