(CNSNews.com) – A Swiss referendum narrowly supporting immigration quotas is being welcomed by “euroskeptic” political parties hoping to ride a wave of discontent over European Union policies and perform strongly in the forthcoming E.U. parliament elections.
Switzerland is not a member of the 28-member union, but in line with agreements with Brussels, it has followed E.U. policies promoting free movement of people and jobs. Following Sunday’s referendum, its government now has until 2018 to reimpose strict quotas on immigration from E.U. countries.
Senior E.U. figures warned that the Swiss may be harming their own interests, since they have benefited significantly from free trade with Europe. The E.U.’s single market is based on free movement of workers, goods, capital and services, and Switzerland could not pick and choose among them, they said.
But several euroskeptic parties that are expected to do well in the European Parliament elections in May welcomed the Swiss vote.
“It is becoming more and more obvious to people across Europe that unfettered free movement from the poorest countries on the continent into the more advanced ones with higher living standards and welfare entitlements is unsustainable,” said Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s U.K Independence Party (UKIP).
“Were the British people to be given their own referendum on this issue then the result would be the same – but by a landslide.”
Farage noted that the Swiss will be able to set their own immigration rules because their country is not a member of the E.U.
UKIP, which is campaigning for tighter immigration laws and for Britain to leave the E.U., saw its popular support rocket in British local elections last year, capturing 23 percent of the vote compared to just three percent in national elections in 2010.
Opinion polls suggest it will perform strongly in the European elections, a traditionally low-turnout exercise in which the E.U. itself is a core issue for many of those who do vote.
Concerns about free movement have been highlighted recently because with effect from January 1 this year – seven years after their countries joined the E.U. – citizens of Romania and Bulgaria are free to live and work anywhere in the union.
In countries like Britain critics warned that a predicted influx from the poorer eastern European nations would reduce job opportunities for locals and put pressure on public services.
An opinion poll by Ipsos MORI late last week found that 62 percent of Britons are “dissatisfied” with their government’s handling of immigration and asylum issues, including 34 percent who are “very dissatisfied.”
UKIP’s popularity and pressure from euroskeptics inside his Conservative Party prompted Prime Minister David Cameron last year to promise to hold a referendum on E.U. membership in 2017, if he is still in office.
A Downing Street spokesman said Monday the Swiss vote was a sign of “growing concern around the impact that free movement [across E.U. borders] can have.”
“That is why the prime minister and other ministers have been raising this issue and will continue to do so with their counterparts across the E.U.,” he said.
In a veiled swipe at Cameron, the E.U.’s employment commissioner Laszlo Andor in a speech in western England on Monday warned European politicians not to “pander to prejudice, or in the worst cases, xenophobia” over the issue of free movement.
He disputed that migrants come to countries like Britain looking to take advantage of welfare benefits.
“The vast majority of people who move from one E.U. country to another do so in order to work. They don’t do it in order to claim benefits,” Andor argued. “These workers are in fact of considerable benefit to the economies, and to the welfare systems, of the receiving countries.”
Meanwhile the Swiss vote was also hailed by two more of Europe’s most prominent euroskeptic parties, France’s National Front (FN) under Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands.
Wilders on his Twitter feed called the result “fantastic,” and said, “What the Swiss can do, we can do too: cut immigration and leave the E.U.”
The two populist and often controversial anti-immigration parties have formed a “European Alliance for Freedom” going into the May elections.
If along with like-minded smaller parties from other countries they are able to secure at least 25 seats with members from at least seven member-states, the alliance will be able to form an official parliamentary bloc, thereby securing funding, offices and the ability to join committees.
A recent poll in France indicated that the FN could secure 23 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections, beating France’s major center-right (21 percent) and socialist (18 percent) parties. Analysts predict at least 18 seats for the FN alone, making that 25-seat threshold a realistic goal.