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Swiss voters back limit on immigration

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By The Associated Press
Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, 6:57 p.m.
 

GENEVA — Voters in Switzerland narrowly backed a proposal to limit immigration Sunday, in a blow for the government after it had warned that the measure could harm the Swiss economy and relations with the European Union.

The decision follows a successful last-minute campaign by nationalist groups that stoked fears of overpopulation and rising numbers of Muslims in the Alpine nation.

Opinion polls before the vote put opponents of the plan in the lead, but as ballot day neared, the gap began to close.

Swiss public television SRF reported that some 50.3 percent of voters eventually backed the proposal to introduce quotas for all types of immigrants. About 49.7 percent voted against it, a difference of fewer than 30,000 votes.

Support was particularly strong in rural areas, while cities such as Basel, Geneva and Zurich rejected the proposal.

The latest decision is likely to have much more far-reaching consequences though, as hundreds of thousands of well-educated foreigners from Germany, France, Italy and other EU countries work in Switzerland.

Before the referendum business groups warned that many of the 80,000 people who moved to Switzerland last year are vital for the country's economy, and curtailing immigration further could cost Swiss citizens' jobs, too.

The Swiss Bankers Association expressed disappointment with the vote. “We urgently need to hold constructive talks with the EU to explain our position.”

The EU said it regretted the outcome of the vote but would see how the government implements the mandate given to it by voters. The text of the referendum gives the Swiss government some leeway to decide how many immigrants can come to Switzerland each year, and how to divide the quota between different groups.

The text of the referendum requires the government to introduce limits on foreigners' rights to bring in family members or access Swiss social services, and curtail asylum — a move that could dent Switzerland's humanitarian image.

The outcome is a success for the nationalist Swiss People's Party, which has more than a quarter of seats in the lower house of Parliament. The party has won a series of referendums in recent years, including a surprise victory in 2009 when voters approved a plan to ban the construction of minarets.

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