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Switzerland eases limits on European immigration

GENEVA -- Switzerland opened its doors a little further yesterday to workers from the rest of Europe by dropping decades-old quotas it has maintained on the number of people allowed to seek jobs in the economically booming country.

More than 400 million citizens of France, Germany, Italy, and other wealthy European countries are now able to move to Switzerland, a nation of 7.5 million people that is not part of the 27-member European Union.

The new rules, replacing an annual limit of 15,000 permanent work permits, apply to citizens of EU countries before the bloc expanded in May 1, 2004.

This will particularly benefit companies seeking to recruit highly skilled workers. More than half of immigrants hold university degrees.

People from non-EU members Liechtenstein, Norway, Iceland, and two new EU members -- Cyprus and Malta -- also will benefit from the change, which removes some of the last hurdles for Europeans hoping to enjoy an economic boom that has created thousands of new jobs in Switzerland in recent years.

However, citizens from the 10 former Communist nations of Eastern Europe that have since joined the EU will remain subject to a quota system until at least 2011.

Switzerland's quality of life is among the highest in the world, making it one of the few places where European professionals count as economic migrants.

While economists say foreign workers have benefited the country, many Swiss fear that a mass influx of migrants will strain its generous social welfare system.

In a country that clings steadfastly to a multitude of traditions in its small, tight-knit mountain communities, and where neutrality is almost a national religion, a latent fear of foreigners remains.

The Swiss government could still invoke a "safety valve" clause, allowing it to reintroduce quotas for EU citizens, if it deems that immigration has become too high.

Previous loosening of immigration rules contributed to the Swiss economy's upswing, with skilled labor meeting a demand that the homegrown work force alone has been unable to fill, according to a study released Thursday by the Economics Ministry.