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Swiss migrants vote stirs alarm in Italy

Northern League energized, wants similar measure at home

10 February, 17:18
Swiss migrants vote stirs alarm in Italy (By Christopher Livesay) (ANSA) - Brussels, February 10 - A vote passed in Switzerland to impose quotas on newcomers to the country stirred alarm in neighboring Italy on Monday in terms of free trade, cross-border labor, and upcoming European Parliament elections. "The impact is very worrying, both with respect to Italy and to other agreements with the European Union," said Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino. "We'll talk about it in the Council of the European Union," she added, referring to a meeting of ministers later in Brussels. On Sunday, Swiss citizens voted by a narrow margin to impose caps on immigrants, including people from the European Union, giving eurosceptic and anti-immigrant movements a boost across the continent while complicating the country's relations with the EU. Some 50.4% of voters supported the referendum pumped by far-right populists, mostly in the German-speaking East.

"This goes against the principle of free movement of people between the EU and Switzerland," the European Commission said, adding it would review the impact on overall relations between Switzerland and the EU.

Germany also expressed disapproval with the law. A spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "the government respected the result of the referendum" but the ruling produced "notable problems". "They will have to discuss the political and legal implications" with the EU, said Spokesman Steffen Seibert. "Our interest must be to keep the relationship between the EU and Switzerland as tight as possible".

Nearly one quarter of the country's eight million people is foreign-born, 290,000 of whom are from neighboring Italy. Furthermore, the move sparked concern among Italy's 5,000 commuters who everyday cross the border with Switzerland to work. "The referendum penalizes us, but the EU finds it illegal, given that Switzerland has signed free-trade agreements with Europe," said Antonio Locatelli, head of Italy's VCO organization that looks after cross-border commuters' rights. Switzerland, which is not an EU member, is closely integrated with the EU and is a member of Europe's passport-free Schengen zone, as well as a founding member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

In Italy and throughout Europe, the vote is expected to energize anti-EU parties ahead of European Parliament elections in May, where such parties are expected to win big. "Switzerland has taught the European Union a big lesson about democracy," said Mario Borghezio, an MEP from Italy's regionalist and anti-immigrant Northern League, which has forged ties with France's far-right National Front.

"Brussels has imposed its choices on us, from austerity to the euro, without ever giving us a chance to voice our desires in a referendum. This is called democracy". Both the League and the National Front called on their respective countries to introduce similar referenda. "The Swiss are showing great common sense," National Front leader Marine Le Pen told French radio. "I think if France held a referendum on the same theme, the French would largely vote against mass immigration". Meanwhile, Italian Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, an immigrant herself, was unequivocal in her opposition to applying the results of the referendum in Switzerland, arguing it would be a "grave error". A favorite target of the League, the Congolese-born doctor has staked much of her legacy as the country's first minister of color on loosening Italy's own immigration policies, through such efforts as decriminalizing undocumented migration and making children born to non-Italian parents eligible for citizenship. "Switzerland is going in the wrong direction," said Kyenge.

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