October 26, 2014 / 5:43 PM / in 3 years

Swiss leaders urge voters to reject new immigration limits

ZURICH (Reuters) - Prominent Swiss business leaders and politicians urged the country on Sunday to reject a referendum next month that aims to impose strict limits on immigration, warning that the measure would damage the economy.

Switzerland will vote on Nov. 30 on an initiative put forward by environmentalist group Ecopop, which proposes capping the number of immigrants at just 0.2 percent of the resident population, or the equivalent of 16,000 people per year.

“It is clear that the Ecopop initiative would truly be a catastrophe for the country,” the head of Swiss drugmaker Roche, Severin Schwan, told Swiss paper Sonntags Zeitung -- one of a number of leading national figures who spoke out against the referendum in Sunday’s newspapers.

“Switzerland stands for reliability, openness and innovation,” he said, underscoring fears that the vote could lead to the gradual isolation of the neutral, landlocked nation, which is not a member of the European Union.

Ecopop will be the second anti-immigration referendum in Switzerland in just nine months, coming on the heels of a right-wing initiative to introduce quotas on EU citizens that was narrowly backed by voters in February.

That vote strained Switzerland’s relations with Europe and the country’s political and business elite fear even tighter immigration restrictions will deter investors and could force companies to relocate.

“Within a few years this would lead to a big labor shortage in various areas... Ecopop would force Switzerland directly into a recession,” Heinz Karrer, the head of the Economiesuisse business lobby, told Sonntags Blick newspaper.

Ecopop’s supporters say there is too much pressure on land and natural resources in Switzerland, whose population has risen more than 140 percent since 1990, with foreigners accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s eight million population.

Swiss banks including UBS and Credit Suisse are especially dependent on the flow of foreign workers, employing up to 25 percent of staff from the EU.

Most political parties have come out against the initiative -- even the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) which proposed the February vote on immigration quotas.

The head of Switzerland’s Federal Department of Home Affairs, Alain Berset, and Swiss Economy Minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann, warned in separate newspaper interviews that the Ecopop initiative could have a negative impact.

“We will control immigration better, but no harm should come to our bilateral relations with the EU,” Schneider-Ammann was quoted as saying.

Reporting by Joshua Franklin; Editing Crispian Balmer

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