GENEVA — The Swiss will vote this weekend on a renewed proposal to limit the number of European Union nationals allowed to live and work in their country, a measure championed by a populist party that wants preferential access for Swiss citizens to jobs, social protection and benefits.

A “yes” vote could upend the rich Alpine’s country’s deep and lucrative ties to the powerful 27-nation bloc, in what has been likened to a Swiss-style Brexit — even though Switzerland isn’t an EU member.

In the referendum ending Sunday that includes questions on some other issues, voters must respond on whether they support a “limitation initiative” that would require Swiss and EU authorities to negotiate within 12 months an end to their freedom of movement accord. If there’s no deal by then, the Swiss could withdraw unilaterally, and ban any future freedom-of-movement deals.

In a similar referendum in 2014, the Swiss narrowly voted in favor of limiting access of EU citizens to live and work in Switzerland, but parliament dragged its heels and did not apply the popular will — largely out of fear of a hefty impact on Swiss society and business. The Swiss People’s Party, seething about the inaction, led a campaign to get the issue back on the ballot again this year.

Recent polls suggest there’s less support for the proposal now. A Sept. 7 survey by gfs.bern agency found that more than 60% of respondents were against it, some 35% backed it and the rest were undecided.

Opponents of the Swiss People’s Party-backed measure — pretty much every other party on both left and right — say Switzerland shouldn’t create more problems for itself by picking a fight with the EU in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Landlocked Switzerland is all but surrounded by EU members and belongs to the Schengen passport-free zone. Its complex relationship with the EU, developed over decades, is governed by dozens of accords on issues ranging from agriculture to taxation.

But nothing epitomizes the depth and impact of those ties more than the ability for the Swiss to live and work in the bloc — and vice-versa for EU citizens in Switzerland — almost as easily as at home.

So the impact of a “yes” vote could be sweeping. Switzerland has some 330,000 cross-border workers from EU countries, many of them health care staffers who have been pivotal in the pandemic — notably in the French-speaking Geneva and Italian-speaking Ticino regions. Roughly 1.4 million EU citizens live in the country of about 8.2 million, while some 500,000 Swiss live in EU countries.

“We are not going to say anything about it a few days before the vote, which is extremely important in Switzerland,” said EU deputy spokesperson Dana Spinant at a briefing in Brussels on Monday.

The freedom-of-movement measure is being considered alongside nationwide votes on paternity leave, tax-breaks for child care, purchases of up to 6 billion francs (about $6.5 billion) worth of new fighter planes by 2030, and the right to hunt wolves to keep their population down.

Yves Nidegger, a lawmaker with the Swiss People’s Party, insisted the Swiss should get preference for jobs in Switzerland. He played down the negative impact of a “yes” vote, saying it would simply mean that Switzerland reorganizes its “friendship” with the EU, unlike the bloc’s “divorce” with Britain.

“It’s not going to affect our economy. ... We create jobs and migrant workers come to take those jobs,” he said. “What we just want is to be able to select, again, who we want and who we do not want, and also (to) give priority (for) jobs to our population.”

Lawmaker Michel Matter, of the Liberal Green party, insisted Switzerland shouldn’t jeopardize ties with its No. 1 trading partner. He said that because many of the bilateral agreements are linked, if the one on freedom of movement collapses so would others on issues such as agriculture, trade and research.

“We are in a crisis period,” he said, alluding to COVID-19. “We should not add crisis to crisis.”

Rene Schwok, a political analyst at the University of Geneva, said the Swiss have more to lose by antagonizing the EU.

“It’s clear that — like Britain is learning — the European Union is much stronger than Switzerland,” he said. “So if there are new negotiations, it won’t be in Switzerland’s interest.”


Nadine Achoui-Lesage in Geneva contributed to this report.

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