By Michael Shields
ZURICH (Reuters) - A conservative Swiss party said it has decided to change course and push for quotas on immigrants from the European Union, raising the chances of a confrontation with Brussels.
Switzerland has been on a collision course with the EU since most voters demanded immigration curbs in a referendum in 2014, jeopardizing a deal that gives the Alpine nation special access to the EU market in exchange for free movement of workers.
Lawmakers have to put the referendum demand into law. But they have been trying to defuse the situation by drawing up a compromise package, with legislation encouraging the hiring of local people rather than overtly limiting outsiders.
The Christian People's Party (CVP) originally backed the package. But it announced its change of heart ahead of a visit by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday to discuss the immigration stand-off.
"We have to bring this solution closer to the will of the people," CVP parliamentary leader Filippo Lombardi told Swiss SRF radio in an interview aired on Wednesday.
The announcement also came a week before the Swiss lower house of parliament was due to vote on the compromise package. Under Swiss law, the changes demanded by the 2014 referendum must be put into place by February next year.
The withdrawal of the backing of the CVP's 27 lawmakers is not enough to sink the compromise deal in the 200-seat lower house.
But it marked a significant erosion of support for the agreement, which is already opposed by the hardline Swiss People's Party (SVP), the largest group in the house with 65 MPs.
Kurt Fluri, a member of the pro-business Liberals party (FDP) who brokered the compromise deal, said such maneuvering was normal a week before a parliamentary vote and he was not alarmed by the U-turn.
"I go into the parliamentary debate with a good feeling... that our concept will make it through," he told the same radio station.
Any deal that Switzerland can strike with the EU to resolve the matter will be scrutinized for potential hints of what Britain might expect after its June vote to leave the bloc.
Free movement of people is a cornerstone of EU policy. Britain voted to leave the EU in large part to stop unlimited immigration of EU citizens that critics say has pressured job markets, social services and schools.
The European Commission has shown little inclination to accommodate Switzerland or budge from insistence the Swiss respect free movement rules or lose trade benefits. Brussels believes that any compromise with Switzerland would heighten demands from Britain.
(Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Andrew Heavens)