June 24, 2015 / 3:30 PM / 2 years ago

Swiss look to chief negotiator to break EU immigration impasse

BERN (Reuters) - Switzerland said on Wednesday it would appoint a chief negotiator to discuss a host of issues between the Alpine nation and the European Union in a bid to break a negotiating deadlock over immigration curbs.

Swiss diplomats have been struggling to reconcile a February 2014 ‘yes’ vote in a referendum for quotas on the number of foreign workers allowed into Switzerland with an EU pact that guarantees the free movement of labor.

Until now different Swiss politicians and diplomats have handled the negotiations with the EU depending on the topic.

The new negotiating approach raises the possibility that Switzerland will have to make concessions on other issues in return for the immigration curbs.

“It’s not the idea of the government to make concessions, I will say that very clearly,” Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter told a news conference in the capital Bern.

“The idea is that when you discuss several issues at the same time, it can open more solutions that were perhaps otherwise impossible.”

Switzerland is not in the EU but has accepted its principles of free movement of labor as part of seven treaties governing bilateral economic ties which stand or fall together.

Switzerland will appoint the chief negotiator by the end of the summer, Burkhalter said, adding that the government would also look to work more closely on the issue with EU neighboring countries such as France, Germany and Italy.

Thousands of EU workers from these countries cross into Switzerland daily and comprise a valuable labor pool for companies such as Novartis and Roche.

Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will meet in the autumn to discuss the situation.

The new negotiating strategy comes 16 months after Swiss voters narrowly backed a proposal from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to impose strict immigration quotas, despite opposition from the government, banks, drugmakers and other industries that rely heavily on skilled EU workers.

Since then Bern has struggled to negotiate a deal with the EU, which last year denounced a Swiss proposal for limits on immigration.

Switzerland’s government has until 2017 to implement the immigration vote.

The SVP blasted the new strategy on Wednesday and called for transparency over the government’s negotiating plan.

“The government seems ready to make massive concessions to the EU,” the SVP said in a statement.

Reporting by Ruben Sprich; Writing by Joshua Franklin; Editing by Michael Shields and Gareth Jones

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