The Swiss parliament passed a law on Friday aimed at curbing immigration by giving local people first crack at open jobs, skirting voters' demand for outright quotas, which it feared could disrupt close ties with the European Union.
The European Commission gave the law a cautious welcome while it checks with members on how to handle non-EU member Switzerland, whose treatment will be scrutinised for hints on what Britain might expect as it negotiates its EU divorce.
The Swiss legislation "appears to go in the right direction" by not setting quotas of EU citizens able to work there, a Commission spokesman told a news conference in Brussels.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was due to talk with Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann later on Friday, and an EU-Swiss committee meeting was planned for Dec. 22.
Brussels has so far shown scant inclination to compromise on the free movement of people - the principle underpinning Swiss access to the EU's single market of 500 million - so as not to encourage Britain after its June Brexit vote.
The bill's lack of upper limits on immigration to a country of 8.3 million, whose population is already a quarter foreign, prompted the right-wing Swiss People's Party to say politicians had defied the people's will as expressed in a 2014 referendum.
The SVP, the largest party in parliament, has accused other parties of caving in to Brussels and shirking their duty to stand up for Swiss sovereignty.
Its members held up signs in the chamber reading "Breach of the constitution" and "Mass immigration continues".
AVOIDING A ROW
But a clear majority in parliament did not want to risk a row with the EU, Switzerland's main trading partner, which could retaliate by abrogating other bilateral accords governing trade worth about 7 percent of Swiss economic output.
The debate in Switzerland in many ways mirrors that in Britain, where voters decided to quit the EU in part as a way to control immigration, which critics said was putting too much strain on social infrastructure.
The British government declined comment on the Swiss vote.
Rather than the quotas voters had demanded, the law says that, at times of economic upheaval, employers in sectors or regions with above-average jobless rates must inform local job centres of vacancies and get the names of job seekers.
The presumption is that local residents will be more likely to register with the job centres - although, to the annoyance of the SVP, cross-border commuters and any citizens from EU or EFTA countries will be allowed to do so, enabling the government to argue that they meet the EU's non-discrimination test.
The right-wing isolationist group AUNS said it would try to force a vote under the Swiss system of direct democracy on abrogating the free movement accord with the EU, saying voters had to stop Switzerland from becoming "a colony of the EU".
Nearly 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland and more than 300,000 commute in from neighbouring countries.
The Swiss think that gives them leverage with Germany, France and Italy, whose leaders may not want to have to explain to voters - especially in border regions where populist partie are strong - why they can no longer work in high-wage Swiss jobs.
Passage of the law cleared the way for the Swiss government to extend free movement of people on Friday to the latest EU member, Croatia. That, in turn, will restore Swiss access to the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, which funds research projects.
In any event, Swiss citizens look set to vote in a second referendum on whether to impose curbs on immigration or reaffirm close economic ties with the bloc.
Many analysts think they will opt to uphold the bilateral accords that smooth business ties with the EU. But the wave of migrants that arrived in Europe last year, and a sense that the EU is increasingly divided and ineffective, could make it a close call.
"You have seen what became of (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel's good idea (to welcome refugees from Syria). I would say 'yes' to quotas," said Siegfried, a retiree from Winterthur who did not give his family name.
Others interviewed at random in Zurich disagreed.
Conrad Hottinger, a retired engineer from Herrliberg, said parliament had found an elegant way out of a policy dilemma triggered by "mean" far-right populist politics.
"The people have said many times that the bilateral accords have priority. This (the 2014 referendum) was a political chess move by the populist right," he said.