BERN, Switzerland, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Switzerland's defense minister says it's "inconceivable" the European Union will sever its bilateral pacts with the nation after its vote to curb immigration.
Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper in a Sunday interview he believes threats from Brussels that Switzerland could be endangering its 120 bilateral deals with the EU over the immigration move are overblown, the Swiss news agency ATS reported.
"It's inconceivable that the bilateral (agreements) will be ended," he said, adding, "it's neither in the interest of Switzerland nor the EU" to terminate them.
Maurer, a member of the populist right-wing party Swiss People's Party, SVP, made the comments after Swiss voters this month narrowly approved an SVP-backed referendum asking Swiss lawmakers to draft plans over the next three years to limit the number of immigrants who can enter the country.
Brussels claims the vote violates Switzerland's obligations to allow fundamental freedom of movement, and thus jeopardizes the scores of other linked bilateral agreement it has with the EU, including those governing its vital access to the European economy.
The plebiscite was followed by a Swiss government move to freeze planning for free movement agreement with the EU's newest member, Croatia.
The EU responded with a Feb. 17 decision to suspend talks on EU-funded research and education programs.
Maurer asserted opinion within the EU on the Swiss immigration vote is split, and thus is could easily change, especially with European elections coming up.
"Until the European elections in May, not much will happen, but afterwards that you'll see a readiness to talk constructively with Switzerland," he predicted.
Even though Brussels has maintained the freedom of movement agreement is non-negotiable, "we will try it anyway," the defense minister said, adding, "Switzerland must now defend its position with confidence."
European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding said in January "it is illusion" to believe Switzerland could renegotiate the agreement without affecting others granting it access to Europe's internal market.
"The free movement of persons is part of the internal market, it's part of the package. Switzerland cannot cherry-pick here or there," she told Schweiz am Sonntag.
If Switzerland wants changes to the movement of persons, it could only come as part of a global negotiation on its series of 120 bilateral agreements with the EU because of a "guillotine clause" that links them together, she said.
At the end of 2012 there were 1.87 million foreigners living in Switzerland, nearly 23.3 percent of a total population that has surpassed 8 million. In addition, more than 270,000 cross-border workers hold a job in Switzerland, government statistics indicate.
The SVP blames immigrants from Eastern European nations for a series of social ills, including loss of valuable agricultural land, crowded public transportation, pressure on wages, crime, asylum abuse and the "loss of cultural identity."
It seeks to reimpose a quota -- lifted in 2011 -- of 2,000 residency permits per year for citizens of the so-called "A8" nations, which joined the EU in 2004.
Two more plebiscites on immigration set to take place before the next federal parliamentary elections in 2015. One will be on the question of whether to extend the free movement of persons to Croatia, which joined the EU last year.
The other is an initiative of the environmentalist group Ecopop aiming to protect the environment and natural resources by limiting immigration to 0.2 percent of annual population growth.