Swiss voters have approved an initiative by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) aimed at limiting immigration. The result not only threatens the free movement of people, but all agreements between Switzerland and the European Union. The voting results have been a shock for open-minded Swiss citizens, foreigners living in the country and the whole European audience.
In all 50.3 percent of the Swiss voted in favour of the SVP’s
“initiative against mass immigration”, which demanded the introduction
of quantitative limits and quotas for foreigners and a renegotiation of
the “Agreement on the free movement of people” with the EU. The Swiss
government now faces the difficult task of introducing the new
constitutional measures at the legislative level.
Several foreign ministers of EU member states, and the European
Commission (EC), the executive arm of the EU, have regretted the Swiss
decision. In its initial statement, the EC wrote that the introduction
of quantitative limits to immigration “goes against the principle of
free movement of persons” and that the EC intends to “examine the
implications on this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole.”
Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, said that as
long as the Swiss government didn’t suspend its bilateral agreements
with the EU, they would remain valid, signalling that the EU for now
will not terminate either the agreement on the free movement of people
or any of the other accords.
However, Schultz stated that it would be “difficult to limit the free
movement of citizens and not limit the free movement of services, for
example.” He made it clear that if Switzerland is no longer able to
fulfil the conditions of the agreement, all other bilateral agreements
were at risk.
Currently, about 430,000 Swiss citizens live in the EU, while more
than a million EU citizens call Switzerland their home, and another
230,000 commute to their Swiss workplaces daily. Major sectors of the
Swiss economy such as construction, the hotel and restaurant industry,
and health services depend on foreign workers.
There’s been strong resistance in Switzerland to joining the EU.
However, the two entities are bound by at least a hundred bilateral
agreements. As regards trade in goods and services, Switzerland is the
EU’s third-largest economic partner, while 57 percent of Swiss exports
in goods go to EU member states and 78 percent of its imports come from
For Andreas Kellerhals, Director of the Europe Institute at the
University of Zurich (EIZ), the EU’s reaction to the Swiss vote isn’t
just a strategic threat. “In the eyes of the EU, the Agreement on the free movement of people
isn’t negotiable, as freedom of movement is one of its four basic
pillars,” Kellerhals told IPS. He points out that in 1999, the EU only
agreed to the bilateral path because the Swiss gave in to an accord on
the free movement of people.
The Federal Council is now exploring ways to put its relationship
with the EU on a new footing, as it hardly sees how immigration quotas
could be compatible with the principle of free movement of people. “Legally, that isn’t possible,” Kellerhals agrees. “Technically,
Switzerland could set the quotas high enough so they couldn’t be
exceeded; however I don’t think the EU will accept that.” Further, that strategy would jar with the SVP initiative and allow
the right-wing party to further criticise and pressure the Swiss
government. No matter how the Federal Council negotiates with the EU, it
can only lose.
For foreigners living and working in Switzerland, the vote was a
disaster. Or, as Rita Schiavi, member of the executive board of the
largest Swiss trade union Unia puts it: “A slap in the face of nearly
two million migrants, who have a huge hand in making Switzerland as
prosperous at it is.” Schiavi told IPS that migrants are frustrated and
In concrete, the SVP demands a return to the so-called
Saisonnierstatut, a regulation for seasonal workers that had been in
place for seven decades. It means that migrant workers wouldn’t be
allowed to bring with them their families, that they would depend on
their employers, and would risk losing their stay permits in case of
unemployment. “Those who have voted for the SVP initiative regard migrants not as human beings, but as pure workforce,” said Schiavi.
Returning to some kind of Saisonnierstatut wouldn’t just harm
affected migrants, but the Swiss economy as a whole. Swiss companies
have a strong desire for skilled foreign personnel, who in the future
may find Switzerland less attractive than before, despite higher wages.
Switzerland’s economic lobby has long fought the initiative against
immigration, as a return to quotas and contingents would complicate
their business and reduce planning reliability. “Multinational companies
may relocate or strengthen their branches abroad which could threaten
the jobs of Swiss employees, too,” said Schiavi.
In Schiavi’s opinion, urgent political action is now required to deal
with those worries and fears that had motivated voters to approve the
SVP initiative. It’s measures that trade unions have demanded for many
years: “We need to reduce wage dumping, improve job protection,
introduce measures in the housing sector and set a national minimum
wage,” said Schiavi.
For the moment, half of the Swiss population is licking their wounds,
while the other half led by the SVP triumphs. Nevertheless, the
right-wing effort to regain control over immigration and the Swiss-EU
relations may lead to the opposite: to a massive loss in sovereignty.
Soon the Swiss delegation travelling to Brussels may have no option but
to hope for the EU’s goodwill.
This report was first
by IPS Inter Press Service.