ZURICH, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Switzerland's next president has said he still hopes to strike an accord with the European Union to maintain the free movement of workers, but warned that his government's threat to impose limits on immigration was no bluff.
Johann Schneider-Ammann, who takes over the Swiss presidency from Simonetta Sommaruga in 2016, said he is optimistic that Switzerland and Europe can come to an agreement, according to an interview in the Neue Zuercher Zeitung newspaper.
Swiss voters last year narrowly approved a referendum on mass immigration which requires quotas, conflicting with existing bilateral treaties with the European Union guaranteeing free movement of people.
Swiss leaders including Schneider-Ammann are trying to follow through on imposing some limits on immigration, while still preserving treaties with Europe, Switzerland's largest trading partner.
"It's clear: There's a constitutional requirement for us to limit immigration," Schneider-Ammann told the newspaper. "Now, we're negotiating with Brussels. Neither side has an interest in canceling freedom of movement."
Switzerland's government has pledged to come up with a proposal by March for a so-called "safety valve" clause that would limit European immigration to Switzerland at a certain threshold.
Schneider-Ammann, the economic affairs minister in Switzerland's government responsible for overseeing trade talks with the European Union, declined to speculate on what that threshold could be.
"I'm not going to play with numbers," he said. "Just how high immigration will be at the end, nobody knows. But I think everybody, even the fiercest proponents of the mass immigration initiative, know that we can't risk our economic vitality. We need well-qualified foreign workers, that's undisputed. Just how many, that's what we'll be discussing in the coming year."
Currently, about a quarter of Switzerland's 8.2 million residents are foreign-born. (Reporting by John Miller)
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