Voters in Switzerland narrowly backed a plan to limit immigration, in a blow for the government after it had warned that the measure could harm the Swiss economy and relations with the European Union.
Swiss public television SRF reported that some 50.3pc of voters backed a proposal by the nationalist People's Party to introduce quotas for all types of immigrants. About 49.7pc voted against the plan. The difference between the two sides was less than 30,000 votes, with a turnout of about 56pc.
The decision means that the Swiss government will need to renegotiate treaties on the free movement of workers that it had painstakingly hammered out with the EU.
Until now, citizens from most EU member states could live and work in Switzerland with little formality, while Swiss citizens could do the same in the 28-nation bloc that encircles the Alpine nation.
Two years ago, Switzerland introduced quotas for immigrants from eight central and eastern European nations, a move that drew heavy criticism from the EU.
Ahead of yesterday's referendum business groups warned that many of the 80,000 people who moved to Switzerland last year are vital for the country's economy, and curtailing immigration further could cost Swiss citizens' jobs, too. "We always thought the argument about jobs would win people over," said Urs Schwaller, a lawmaker with the centrist Christian People's Party, told SRF. "Clearly that wasn't enough."
Mr Schwaller said the Swiss government would now need to launch a diplomatic offensive, explaining to the EU that its hands are bound by the referendum while trying to avoid sanctions from Brussels.
"We need to show the European Union that we're a reliable partner," he said.
The new proposal forces the government to draft a law extending quotas to immigrants from Western Europe and introduce limits on all foreigners' rights to bring in family members or access Swiss social services.