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Swiss Voters To Allow Open Borders to East European Workers


A solid majority of Swiss voters has agreed to open the country's borders to workers from the European Union's 10 mainly East European member states. The proposal was approved by 56 percent of voters.

Even the presenter is astonished at the outcome. In giving the final tally, she tells her audience the vote in favor of the national referendum on the free movement of people is a surprise.

In an interview, Swiss Economics Minister Joseph Deiss does not hide his relief. He calls the vote an act of courage by the Swiss people, and praises them for overcoming their fears.

Mr. Deiss says he is happy by this vote of confidence. This means the government now will be able to put its economic strategy in place. He says the proposal to allow people from the 10 mainly East European countries to work freely in Switzerland will not go into effect until 2011.

Six-years ago, Switzerland signed a bilateral agreement with Brussels to open up its labor markets to the 15 state that made up the European Union at that time. Sunday's referendum result gives the same rights to workers from the 10 new member states.

Right-wing opponents argued that flooding Switzerland with cheap laborers from Eastern Europe would result in job losses and lower salaries. Similar arguments caused French and Dutch voters to reject a proposed E.U. constitution earlier this year.

Supporters of the referendum note that the European Union is Switzerland's most important trading partner, and shutting the door on its member countries would have seriously strained relations.

The Head of the Swiss Integration Office, Urs Bucher, agrees.

"I would say, it is crucial for our country, politically, but also economically," he says. "Every third [of the Swiss] Francs that we earn, we earn in our relations with the European Union, and it is quite evident that we need well functioning relations, and with a 'yes' [vote] ... we will stabilize relations with the European Union."

The vote, once again, highlights the divide between Switzerland's more conservative German-speaking cantons and the more liberal French-speaking ones. Seven out of Switzerland's 26 cantons that voted against the measure are German-speaking; whereas, all of the cantons in the French-speaking part of the country were in favor of extending the agreement.

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