February 23, 2014

Swiss Vote for New Squeeze on Migrants

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 there.

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 alienated.

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 published here by IPS Inter Press Service

February 15, 2014

European Ruling Ignites Freedom Debate

A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in relation to a Turkish national has kicked up a new row on anti-racism legislation. The court ruled in December that Switzerland violated the right to freedom of speech of the Turkish national Doğu Perinçek by convicting him for calling the idea of an Armenian genocide an “international lie”.

In 2007, a court in the Swiss Canton of Vaud had found Perinçek guilty of racial discrimination as defined by Section 261 of the Swiss Criminal Code, ruling that the Armenian genocide was a proven historical fact. Already in 2003, the Swiss National Council had acknowledged the Armenian genocide.

Perinçek subsequently appealed in Switzerland’s Federal Court, which dismissed his claims. After that, Perinçek took his case to the ECHR in Strasbourg.

In its ruling, the ECHR found that Perinçek’s conviction by the Swiss court was wrong, as it violated Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights on freedom of expression. The court argued that Perinçek had never questioned the massacres and deportations perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, but had denied their characterisation as “genocide”. He didn’t mean to incite hatred against the Armenian people, the ECHR pointed out.

In fact, Perinçek’s view corresponds with Turkey’s official stance that is widely shared by the Turkish public, all main political parties as well as the state-run Historical Society. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry called the ECHR decision “a victory for the rule of law.”

Schools and universities in Turkey teach that the killings of Armenians were neither deliberate, nor orchestrated by the Ottoman leadership in Istanbul. Further, Turkish historians doubt that up to 1.5 million Armenians had died, as many Western scholars claim.

However, Turkish estimates vary, starting around 10,000 Armenian casualties. Turkish historians argue that most of the death occurred due to illness and malnutrition.

Beyond Turkey’s eastern border, lobbying for worldwide genocide recognition is a fundamental part of Armenia’s foreign policy. Until today, diverging interpretations of what happened in Armenia during and after the First World War strain bilateral relations.

The ECHR highlighted that it wasn’t called upon to address either the veracity of the massacres and deportations perpetrated against the Armenian people or the appropriateness of legally characterising those acts as “genocide”. It doubted that there could be a consensus on the issue.

The Switzerland-Armenia Association (SAA) said it was “deeply disappointed and appalled by the ECHR verdict.” Dominique de Buman, Swiss national councillor and co-president of the SAA told IPS: “The ECHR ruling isn’t just a setback for human dignity, but also contradicts a European Council Framework Decision that ordered member states to ensure that publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were penalised.”

Such framework decisions do not pose a legal basis for the ECHR, however. De Buman also referred to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. “Don’t forget that the convention was adopted in reaction to the Holocaust as well as the Armenian genocide,” he told IPS.
The ECHR ruling has sparked a debate in Switzerland on whether or not the government should appeal the decision and if and how Swiss anti-racism legislation may be amended.

Councillor De Buman told IPS he was optimistic that an appeal could lead to a further examination of the case, as the ECHR ruling wasn’t unanimous: “Two of the seven judges had expressed a joint concurring opinion. They stated that there existed an international consensus regarding the characterisation of the massacres against the Armenian people.”

Judges András Sajó and Guido Raimondi would welcome a Swiss appeal to the Grand Chamber, as so far the court has never taken a view on the massacres and deportations of the Armenians. “It’s our symbolic and moral obligation to define and qualify these events,” they wrote. Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice hasn’t yet taken a decision in that regard.

The ECHR ruling plays into the hands of right-wing groups such as the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) who have repeatedly tried to knock down the country’s anti-racism legislation. Consequently, the party’s long-time leader Christoph Blocher demanded a change of the criminal code. Legally, the ECHR ruling doesn’t force Switzerland to amendments.

Silvia Bär, the SVP’s secretary general, told IPS that the party is preparing a parliamentary request to specify or even abolish Swiss anti-racism legislation. “We reject racism. However, the current application of the legislation is getting increasingly absurd and incorrectly limits the right to freedom of expression.”

According to Bär, the anti-racism legislation is being misused to discipline and sanction unwelcome opinions. In addition, the SVP demands that Switzerland resigns from the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and that it dissolves the Federal Commission against Racism (EKR).

Martine Brunschwig Graf, National Councillor for the Liberals and President of the EKR has doubts about these intentions. “The ECHR ruling is complex and doesn’t put the Swiss anti-racism paragraph in question,” she told IPS. From 1995 to 2012, Swiss courts have sentenced accused persons in 310 cases under that paragraph. Brunschwig Graf calls the legislation an indispensable instrument: “The fight against racism requires prevention at all levels, but also repression if certain limits are surpassed.”

Among the other parties, the Swiss anti-racism legislation enjoys broad support. Hansjörg Fehr of the Social Democrats told the Swiss national radio that if the criminal code was to be changed, then “we need a passage that explicitly punishes the denial of the Armenian genocide.”

The debate is expected to ignite at the next parliamentary session in March.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service