GENEVA (AP) — Voters in Switzerland approved an expanded labor deal with the European Union on Sunday that allows Romanians and Bulgarians to work in the Alpine republic.
Switzerland is not an EU member, but allows the bloc's citizens to live and work in the country in return for Swiss nationals being able to do the same in EU countries including Britain, France and Germany.
Nearly three in five Swiss voted in favor of expanding the freedom of movement accord in a referendum that had threatened the wealthy country's carefully negotiated ties to the 27-nation bloc.
Polls had indicated a closer vote.
As the global economic downturn stirs worries about a recession even among the Swiss, a campaign spearheaded by the nationalist Swiss People's Party raised the specter of "uncontrolled mass immigration" by poor workers from Romania and Bulgaria.
But President Hans-Rudolf Merz had said a "No" vote to broadening the deal threatened to derail other agreements with the EU on issues such as trade and traffic control.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso praised the outcome of the referendum.
It "is a key agreement in the relationship between the European Union and Switzerland," he said. "I am sure that we will deepen our excellent relations."
Majorities in 22 of Switzerland's 26 cantons backed the government over an anti-foreigner campaign led by right-wing parties.
The 59.6 percent support represented a fall of 7.6 percent from 2000, when Swiss voters first ratified the deal with 15 older EU members. But it was 3.6 percent more than in 2005, when the deal was expanded to include 10 mainly Eastern European countries that had joined the EU.
The youth wing of the People's Party, backed by the far-right Lega dei Ticinesi and Swiss Democrats, collected enough signatures to force the referendum. Campaign posters featuring three ravens pecking at a small map of Switzerland said "Free ticket for everyone? No!" and brought objections from the Romanian Foreign Ministry.
Proponents of the expansion, however, said such fears were unfounded and countered that a "No" vote would have ended much of the country's cooperation with the EU based on the so-called "bilaterals" signed between 1993 and 1999.
The government and most of the country's major political parties say Switzerland has nothing to fear from Romania and Bulgaria and that a quota system will tightly restrict initial numbers of workers allowed in — with only 362 from both countries receiving long-term permits during the first year, increasing to 1,207 by 2016.
The quotas will eventually be dropped.
Germans make up by far the biggest group of foreigners under the accord, with nearly 41,000 followed by more than 15,000 Portuguese.
Associated Press writer Eliane Engeler in Geneva and Balz Bruppacher in Bern, Switzerland, contributed to this report.