Brexit overshadows Swiss talks with Merkel on EU immigration

© Pascal Lauener
The Swiss president has held talks in Germany to discuss limits on immigration into Switzerland, a move required by a popular vote that goes against Bern’s treaties with EU members. The talks have been complicated by similar issues raised in the UK’s decision to exit the bloc.

Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann arrived in Berlin on Wednesday to discuss immigration issues with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In addition to defending his country’s plan to introduce hiring preferences, which was backed by the lower chamber of the Swiss parliament last month, he intends to fight a proposed framework agreement that Brussels wants to sign with Switzerland to replace around 120 sector-specific bilateral treaties with EU members.

"Above all else, Mrs Merkel will hear from me that we are counting on the EU not to force upon us a connection between freedom of movement and a framework agreement," Schneider-Ammann said in an interview aired by broadcaster SRF ahead of the visit.

The two leaders agreed to continue the talks between Switzerland and the EU. Merkel said that she is “optimistic” about the future of the immigration deal, adding that the negotiations “are bound” to be successful.

Schneider-Ammann expressed his hope that a “solution” would be found before the end of the year. At the same time, he stressed that any future deal must be both compatible with EU rules on the freedom of movement and supported by most Swiss citizens.

Swiss talks with the EU on immigration are being closely watched in Britain, which will renegotiate its own arrangement with the EU on market access and labor movement as it proceeds to leave the bloc. Immigration concerns were a major factor in the Brexit referendum, accounting for roughly half of the ‘leave’ votes in the poll, according to EurActiv.

However, both the Swiss and German leaders on Wednesday said they would not like the British situation to affect the outcome of their talks.

"If I tried to put myself in the shoes of a Swiss citizen, I wouldn't be pleased if it was suddenly cast in a new light because of another decision in another country," Merkel said at a news conference.

"That's why we should conduct these talks with Switzerland as if the Great Britain issue never existed. I can only say that the German position hasn't changed with Great Britain's decision. These are two completely different issues.”

There is a difference of opinion among politicians and legal experts on whether the Swiss plan to comply with the referendum requires Brussels’ blessing.

The Swiss federal government has until 2017 to implement the decision taken by citizens in a 2014 referendum, when they voted in favor of imposing quotas on the immigration of workers from the EU. Switzerland is not part of the union and regulates the movement of people to and from the EU by a network of bilateral treaties with individual members. If taken literally, the public demand would require the government to denounce those treaties and spend years negotiating new ones.

The government instead wants to impose preferences for Swiss businesses, which would encourage them to hire locals despite their requiring higher wages rather than giving jobs to foreign workers. The cost of living in Switzerland is higher than in some of its neighbors, so there is a sentiment in several cantons that foreigners are stealing jobs from the locals.