A majority of the Swiss electorate voted to allow workers from 10 new European Union member states to work in Switzerland, according to early projections following a national referendum Sunday.
The projections on Switzerland's German-language SF DRS public television, compiled from early results and exit polls, showed about 56 percent of voters support the government-proposed initiative, which will allow citizens of eight Eastern European countries as well as the Mediterranean island countries of Cyprus and Malta, to travel and work freely in Switzerland.
The exit polls were carried out by social research institute GFS Bern. Final results were expected later Sunday. Under the terms of a 1999 bilateral agreement, Switzerland and the original 15 EU member states agreed to open their labor markets to each other's citizens.
The original 15 EU states can maintain some restrictions in their labor markets for seven years after the new members joined on May 1, 2004. If voters approve freedom of movement for the new EU members, Switzerland also would be able to keep some protections for its own work force until at least 2011.
But if the measure is rejected, it could endanger a series of complex bilateral accords between Switzerland and the 25-nation bloc _ including deals in key areas of trade and transport.
The expected result will be beneficial for the Swiss economy because of access to new markets and a qualified work force and is a "huge opportunity," according to a statement from the Swiss Union of Arts and Professions.
But Bernhard Hess, head of the Swiss Democrats _ the only major political party to campaign against the initiative _ said he was disappointed that the "no" campaign was unable to overcome misleading propaganda from supporters of the proposal.
Switzerland's system of direct democracy means that the people's consent is required on any major issue, including closer integration with the rest of Europe.
The country _ independent and neutral for centuries in the heart of war-torn Europe _ has been sensitive to measures that might compromise its sovereignty and economic strength as one of the world's richest countries.
The coalition government has favored closer cooperation with the EU, and eventually joining the bloc, saying that Switzerland's special status may no longer be sustainable. However, many of the country's German speakers _ who make up about two-thirds of the population _ are opposed to integration.
The government-proposed initiative to include the 10 new members is a sequel to a June referendum, in which Swiss voters approved joining the EU's "Schengen" passport-free area. The zone currently comprises 15 Western European countries, but was expected eventually to encompass the new EU members, AP reported.
The country's seven-member governing Cabinet urged a "yes" in the referendum. But opponents said allowing in the new laborers from the east would take jobs from Swiss workers and would lower salaries.