ZURICH Switzerland's economy minister wants to save bilateral agreements with the European Union, at risk after Switzerland voted to curb immigration from the bloc three weeks ago, he told a Swiss newspaper on Sunday.
"We have to reconcile the popular vote and the free movement of persons, also in order to save the bilateral agreements," Johann Schneider-Ammann told the SonntagsZeitung in an interview.
"That is a very difficult task, it may prove a 'mission impossible'," he said, adding it was important for Switzerland to continue to attract foreign investment.
Switzerland decided in a popular vote on February 9 to reintroduce quotas for immigrants from the European Union, which is contrary to the principle of the free movement of persons agreed with the EU.
It told new EU member Croatia it would not be able to sign a labor market pact as planned.
The EU has reacted by halting talks on a further integration of Switzerland into the European electricity market and by excluding Switzerland from the European student exchange program ERASMUS and research program Horizon 2020.
"There is no sustainable growth without immigration," Schneider-Ammann said in the interview. The government as well as business lobbies had recommended that voters reject the curbs on immigration.
The minister said he expected the decision to dampen Switzerland's economic growth and on Saturday met with business leaders to discuss how the immigration vote can be implemented.
He said everybody agreed the bilateral agreements should not be put at risk and the current level of education and research had to be preserved.
"I will submit proposals to the government for Erasmus and Horizon 2020," Schneider-Ammann said, adding, however, that the EU was expecting a solution for the free movement of persons with Croatia.
The EU and Switzerland signed bilateral agreements in 1999, including an agreement on the free movement of persons, which came into force in 2002.
Thousands demonstrated in the Swiss capital of Berne on Saturday for Switzerland to remain open.
(Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; editing by Jason Neely)