Swiss foreign minister sees EU immigration deal near - paper


ZURICH (Reuters) - Switzerland and the European Union could strike a deal on curbing immigration to the neutral Alpine country soon after Britons decide in June whether to quit the bloc, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said.

His unusually upbeat comments to the NZZ am Sonntag paper follow the cabinet's unveiling on Friday of tough draft legislation that envisages unilateral limits on EU immigrants, a red flag for Brussels, should negotiations fail.

The talks are on hold until EU member Britain's June 23 referendum of whether to stay in the bloc. Brussels is unwilling to show any flexibility in the Swiss talks that could encourage the British 'Out' camp.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga had said on Friday the two sides remained far apart, but Burkhalter said things could move quickly after the British decision.

"The fact that the EU is interested in a joint solution is evidenced by the intense discussions we have conducted for a year. In my opinion we don't have to negotiate much longer as we are close to a solution with the EU," he was quoted as saying.

Switzerland is two-thirds of the way through a three-year timetable to enforce a binding 2014 referendum vote in favour of immigration quotas which would violate a bilateral pact guaranteeing freedom of movement for EU workers.

The government has called Friday's blueprint to go it alone on immigration controls "Plan B" and stressed that a mutual agreement with the EU was by far the preferred option.

The standoff has jeopardised a package of Swiss-EU treaties that govern economic ties. A study commissioned by the government last year found exiting the pacts could cut output by up to 630 billion Swiss francs ($634 billion) by 2035, or as much as 7 percent of GDP.

(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Mark Potter)