Swiss voters have overwhelmingly rejected a rightwing party’s attempt to scrap a pact allowing the free movement of people from the European Union, according to a projection of results by the broadcaster SRF on Sunday.

The Swiss People’s party (SVP) had called a referendum on the EU agreement – a vote that was considered an important test of attitudes towards foreigners who make up a quarter of the population.

The broadcaster said its projection, based on partial results from Sunday’s plebiscite, showed the motion was defeated 63%-37%.

The SVP – the biggest party in parliament – has pushed to take back control of immigration, echoing some of the arguments pro-Brexit politicians used in the run-up to Britain’s exit from the EU.

It has painted a gloomy picture of young foreigners supplanting older Swiss, housing getting more expensive, schools and transport getting overcrowded and construction running wild.

Opponents said the plan would have robbed business of skilled workers and torpedoed accords that enhance non-EU member Switzerland’s access to the EU single market.

Under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, the referendum could have forced the government to annul the EU agreement if negotiations did not produce a deal on ending the pact voluntarily, a very unlikely outcome.

A “guillotine clause” would have also meant that ending free movement would have toppled other bilateral pacts on land and air transport, procurement, technical barriers to trade, and research.

About 68% of the 2.1 million foreigners living in Switzerland in 2019 were citizens of the EU, as well as Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein – the other members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which includes Switzerland.

The pact also lets Swiss move freely in the EU – more than 450,000 of them live in the bloc.

Once the referendum result is confirmed, the government can turn next to its biggest foreign policy issue: a stalled treaty meant to cement ties with the EU but which critics say infringes too much on Swiss sovereignty.

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