Swiss voters rejected a proposal to end an agreement with the EU allowing free movement of people.
With all the referendum votes counted, nearly 62% said they wanted to maintain free movement, while 38% were against.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU but has a series of interdependent treaties with Brussels which allow it to access the European free trade area.
The decision to curb immigration was proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), but opposed by the government.
A similar initiative to introduce quotas for immigrants from the EU to Switzerland was narrowly adopted in a referendum in 2014, damaging Swiss-EU relations.
The Swiss have a direct say in their own affairs under the country’s system of direct democracy. They are regularly invited to vote on various issues in national or regional referendums.
Supporters of the anti-free movement plan have said it would allow Switzerland to control its borders and select only immigrants it wants.
Opponents argued that this would plunge a healthy economy into recession at an uncertain time and deprive hundreds of thousands of Swiss citizens of their freedom to live and work across Europe.
A landlocked country that has observed neutrality for centuries, Switzerland has, over time, oscillated between seeking a closer engagement with the EU and a preference for a more isolationist path.
Sunday’s referendum could have forced the Swiss government to unilaterally cancel its free movement agreement with the EU by invoking a so-called guillotine clause.
This clause would have had an impact on other bilateral transport, research and trade agreements with the EU, disrupting economic activity.
What reaction was there?
Right-wing UDC President Marco Chiesa acknowledged that his campaign had struggled to garner enough support for a proposal the government, parliament and unions opposed.
In view of this opposition, Mr. Chiesa called the campaign a “fight between David and Goliath”. “But we will continue to fight for the country and take back control of immigration,” he said.
Opponents of the proposal said the result was an expression of Switzerland’s support for open bilateral relations with the EU. They said voters were concerned about the economic cost of ending free movement during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The bilateral path is the right one for Switzerland and for the EU,” Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter told reporters. “The Swiss have confirmed this path even today”.
“Today is a great day for relations between the European Union and Switzerland,” tweeted European Council President Charles Michel. “The Swiss have spoken and sent a clear message: together we have a bright future ahead of us. “
A vote to keep an agreement considered reasonable
Analysis by Imogen Foulkes, correspondent for BBC News Geneva
Swiss voters have declared a convincing ‘no’ to ending the free movement of people with the EU.
The People’s Party argued that immigration from Europe was to blame for a growing population and placed an unsustainable burden on Switzerland’s public services and environment.
In the past, the party has been successful in its anti-immigration campaigns, but not this time. The economic consequences were clear.
For example, 60% of Swiss exports go to Europe. In addition, half a million Swiss live and work in the EU, and 1.4 million European citizens work in Switzerland, many of them in health services.
Ending free movement would have jeopardized the entire relationship with Europe.
Brussels has always told the Swiss that they cannot choose: no free trade without free movement. Today, Swiss voters showed they believe the deal is reasonable.
What other questions has Switzerland voted on?
A referendum on paternity leave for new fathers was among other issues in Sunday’s poll.
The initiative was supported by a majority of voters, announcing a major change in Switzerland, a country seen as lagging behind its European neighbors in terms of parental leave.
According to the proposal, fathers will receive two weeks of paid leave for the first time within six months of the birth of a child. They will also be entitled to 80% of their salary, up to a cap of 196 Swiss francs (£ 165; $ 210) per day.
In addition, voters narrowly approved a government plan to purchase new fighter jets and blocked a review of Switzerland’s hunting law, which would have made it easier to kill protected species such as wolves.
What are the possible consequences for Brexit?
The Swiss referendum was already in preparation before the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in 2016.
The UDC – the largest party in the Swiss parliament – has used arguments similar to Brexiteers about the benefits of having more control over immigration.
But net migration to Switzerland is actually declining right now, and there is a feeling voters are starting to tire of the party’s anti-immigration message.
The strong vote in favor of free movement could strengthen Brussels’ hand with London and signal the UK what kinds of compromises might be needed to reach a free trade deal with the EU.
Chronology: Switzerland and the EU
1992: Switzerland votes 50.3% against 49.7% against joining the European Economic Area
1992-2002: Switzerland negotiates, then signs the first bilateral agreements with the EU – they are interdependent and include the free movement of people – supported by a vote in 2000
2005: Switzerland votes to join the European Schengen Treaty on open borders and extend free movement to 10 new EU Member States
2009: Vote to extend freedom of movement to new EU members, Romania and Bulgaria
2014: Switzerland narrowly supports quotas on EU workers
- European Union
- International trade