Switzerland's executive branch on Wednesday ordered a one-year cap on the number of workers from Bulgaria and Romania who can access Swiss jobs, after an influx from the two European Union member states in recent months.
The decision by the seven-member Federal Council invokes rules of a deal between Switzerland and the 28-member bloc, of which Switzerland is not a member.
The deal generally allows for open-access work rights and freedom of circulation, but allows some exceptions based on how many people enter and other factors.
Citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, as relatively new EU members, first obtained such enhanced access to jobs in Switzerland last July. But after a relatively high influx of Bulgarians and Romanians, mainly for seasonal construction jobs, the council ordered that net immigration from the two countries be set at 996 people over the coming year.
The Swiss government said net inflows of Bulgarians and Romanians totaled 3,300 people last year, twice the figure in 2015, even though inflows from the EU overall fell. They took jobs in sectors with relatively high jobless rates, it said, adding that the move adheres to a parliamentary decision in December to give preference to people already on Swiss unemployment rolls.
Switzerland has relatively low unemployment, and has been a lure for many workers from the European Union: About one-fourth of the country's population is foreign-born. But the small, wealthy Alpine nation has seen a growing resistance to migrants from abroad, partly underpinning the rise of the right-wing Swiss People's Party — now the top party in parliament.
Lukas Riedel, a spokesman of the Swiss state secretariat for migration, said the council's decision Wednesday was similar to another carried out five years ago following the accession of eight other European Union members.
"This is based on an agreement with the EU ... and it's temporary," Riedel said. "This is not discrimination against Bulgaria and Romania."
George Ciamba, a top official in the Romanian Foreign Ministry, expressed regret over the decision, insisting that a relatively small number of Romanians had applied for Swiss work permits, according to a ministry statement.
Romanian officials believed any such decision should be taken with an eye to keeping close bilateral relations between the EU and Switzerland, "with the goal of respecting the free circulation of people and the workforce and non-discrimination of European citizens," he said.