Switzerland has announced that it will extend immigration limits to all European Union countries amid pressure from the political far-right.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member, already has a quota in place for eight Eastern European members that joined the bloc in 2004, as well as special, stricter regulations for the newest members Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007.

The justice and police ministry said on Wednewsday that it would now limit resident permits to a maximum of 53,700 annually for citizens from the remaining 17 EU countries.

Under an agreement with the European Union, Switzerland can invoke this so-called safeguard clause if immigration rises above a certain level.

The decision drew criticism from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who said it ran counter to agreements between the 27-member bloc and the Alpine country.

"These measures disregard the great benefits that the free movement of persons brings to the citizens of both Switzerland and the EU," she added.

The government's step came after the far-right Swiss People's Party and the right-wing ecological group Ecopop launched initiatives for referenda to slow immigration.

The overall number of immigrants had exceeded those leaving the country by 60,000 to 80,000 over the past years, the ministry said.

"The government does not view the invocation of the safeguard clause as an unfriendly act towards the EU," Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told reporters.

"It's a fact that there is unease among the population, and it's necessary to take this unease seriously," she added.

Source: Agencies