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GENEVA — Voters in Switzerland narrowly backed a proposal to limit immigration on Sunday, a blow for the government after it warned the measure could hurt the economy and relations with the European Union.
The decision follows a successful last-minute campaign by nationalist groups that stoked fears of overpopulation and rising numbers of Muslims in the Alpine nation.
Swiss public television reported 50.3 percent of voters backed the proposal to introduce quotas for all types of immigrants. About 49.7 percent voted against it, a difference of fewer than 30,000 votes.
Support was quite strong in rural areas; cities such as Basel, Geneva, and Zurich rejected the proposal.
“This has far-reaching consequences for Switzerland ... and our relations with the European Union,” Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said. “It’s a shift away from the current system of free movement of people.”
Although Switzerland isn’t an E.U. member, it enjoys close ties to the 28-nation bloc.
Bern has ardently negotiated bilateral pacts with Brussels, including one that lets most of the E.U.’s 500 million citizens live and work in Switzerland with little formality. The Swiss, in turn, could do the same in the European Union.
Under Swiss law, the government now must renegotiate its treaty on the free movement of people, though it is unclear what caps will be placed on immigration and when.
Switzerland already placed quotas for immigrants from eight central and eastern European nations two years ago. The latest decision is likely to have much more far-reaching consequences though: Hundreds of thousands of well-educated foreigners from Germany, France, Italy, and other E.U. nations work in Switzerland.
Before the referendum, business groups warned that many of the 80,000 people who moved to Switzerland last year are vital for the economy; more immigration limits could cost the Swiss their jobs too.
The European Union said it regretted the vote’s outcome but would see how the government carries out voters’ mandate.
The referendum’s text gives the government leeway in deciding how many immigrants can come to Switzerland each year and how to divide the quota among groups. The text also requires the government to limit foreigners’ rights to bring in relatives, access social services, or gain asylum — moves that could dent the nation’s humanitarian image.