Switzerland's decision to impose curbs on immigrants from the European Union (EU) has reignited the debate on freedom of movement in Europe, Downing Street said on Monday, as leading EU states warned Switzerland there would be repercussions for a vote that stunned and infuriated Brussels.
David Cameron's spokesman said Sunday's referendum, in which 50.3%of Swiss voters call for quotas to be imposed by 2018, reflected "growing concern around the impact that free movement can have". "That is why the Prime Minister and other ministers have been raising this issue, and will continue to do so, with their counterparts across the EU. Clearly the EU and Switzerland will now have to enter into a period of discussion."
Free movement of people and jobs within its borders is one of the fundamental policies of the EU. Switzerland, while not a member, has operated an agreement since 2002 in which citizens have been able to cross the border freely and work on either side as long as they have a contract or are self-employed.
Staunchly integrationist EU figures reacted with anger and threats. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, called it "worrying", adding: "We will have to review our relations with Switzerland. Switzerland is not a considerable economic power … it lives off the EU."
On a visit to Britain, Viviane Reding, the deputy chief of the EU's executive, said Switzerland could not expect to keep the benefits of free trade without accepting freedom of movement. "That is not possible. You take them all or you leave them all," she said.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, warned that Switzerland had "harmed itself … [It] makes a living from its reputation as an open country in the middle of Europe".
Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourg foreign minister, said: "There will be consequences, that's clear. You can't have privileged access to the European internal market and, on the other hand, dilute free circulation."
Other EU foreign ministers accused the Swiss of xenophobia. The vote was originally proposed by the Right-wing populist Swiss People's Party.
"We are seeing throughout Europe the rise of what can only be called a far-Right agenda," said Ireland's Eamon Gilmore.
Thierry Repentin, France's junior minister in charge of EU affairs, linked the Swiss debate to British hostility to Bulgarian and Romanian migrants who have been allowed free access since January 1, 2014. He noted that Britain also raised "some questioning" on free movement in the EU, but said the matter was now closed because EU law enshrines the principle. He added that Swiss feeling was not representative of wider Europe. "This vote … should not be extrapolated to say what people in Europe think of free movement," he said.
Polls predict that European Parliament elections in May will return the most Eurosceptic assembly in its history.
Filip Dewinter, a leading member of the Flemish nationalist party in Belgium, the Vlaams Belang, described the Swiss vote as "a very important signal". He said the rise in Euroscepticism was linked to EU immigration law and its unwillingness to take people's concerns seriously. "What happened in Switzerland would be happening all over Europe, but only the Swiss have direct democracy with referendums, which makes it possible for people to express themselves," he said. "This has nothing to do with racism … it's about taking away people's way of life, their culture."
Nigel Farrage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), agreed that the Swiss result could easily be replicated. He said one of the EU's "fundamental mistakes" was to uphold freedom of movement when it let in the former Iron Curtain countries in 2004.