The Vote Against Immigration: An Error for Switzerland?

The Swiss public recently voted in a referendum to cap immigration into their country. Teona Surmava considers the economic and political fall-out.

For us, EU-Swiss relations come as a package. If Switzerland suspends immigration from the EU, it will not be able to count on all the economic and trade benefits it is currently enjoying. We will not allow [. . .] cherry-picking.

Hannes Swoboda MEP

On February 9 2014, the “Stop mass immigration” initiative was backed by a slim majority of voters (50.3 percent) in Switzerland. As a response, Brussels decided that Swiss students will not be able to participate in the EU’s Erasmus Plus exchange programme this September. “In 2014, Switzerland will not participate in Erasmus Plus on equal footing with member states as initially envisaged,” said EU Employment Commissioner Laszlo Andor. As the EU official states: “I am not sure that all the consequences [of a vote to instigate immigration quotas] have been part of the debate in Switzerland ahead of the referendum.”

“This is a turning point, a change of system with far-reaching consequences for Switzerland,” Switzerland’s justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga told reporters in Bern.

Too many migrants?

The outcome of the referendum reflects concerns among the Swiss population that immigrants are eroding their culture and contributing to rising rents, crowded transport and more crime. Net immigration runs at 70,000 people per year. Since migrants make up roughly a quarter (foreigners make up 23 percent of the 8 million) of Switzerland’s population, increasing fear of mass migration have led right-wing political parties to push back using Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), earlier supporting the initiatives to ban burqas and the construction of minarets in the country, championed the ‘yes’ vote in this referendum. As the Times observes, the party’s current success may “embolden other ideologically similar Euroskeptic parties across the continent.” As George Sheldon, a New York-born academic at Basel University says, the most clever aspect of the SVP’s agenda is that they rarely specified the type of immigration they were talking about, so that using the term “mass immigration” they easily won the vote. Who could possibly be far “mass” anything?”

A contradictory self-image?

Switzerland views itself as a nation forged by the will of the people – a community that decided to come together and create a state. The truth is precisely the opposite – the Swiss state wasn’t forged by will. Switzerland’s regions haven’t come together because it is their innermost wish to do so. The reasoning is more profane. The German-language areas don’t want to belong to Germany, the Suisse romande don’t want to be a part of France, and the Ticinesi don’t want to become part of Italy. Instead, they are Swiss.

But an identity built merely on the rejection of alternatives has its weaknesses. Ever since the charisma associated with William Tell (a folk hero of Switzerland) and the Old Swiss Confederacy faded, the mythological underpinnings of oft-evoked Swiss exceptionalism have vanished. The only thing remaining to substitute for a national identify is prosperity. Being richer than those surrounding you – it’s still something. Those who have a lot also have a lot to lose.

One of the interesting aspects of the referendum was that it confirmed the existence of the “Rösti curtain”  – the German Swiss potato dish symbolizing the political division between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland – and the further split between urban and rural areas. French-speaking areas voted against quotas, while German-speaking regions were divided and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino was in favor. With the exception of the Tessin canton, people in towns where most of the foreigners live voted against curbing immigration. In the countryside, Swiss nationals welcomed it.

Possible consequences of the referendum

Supported by EU critics and anti-immigration parties, the referendum outcome can only encourage right wing populists ahead of the European parliamentary elections in May, and raises serious issues about Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU. The results are likely to put EU-Swiss relations to the test, as the Union sees the free movement of citizens as a fundamental core value.


The SVP has been criticised for its populist and racist approaches to previous issues, such as the bans on burqas and minaret construction.

The Swiss system of direct democracy – allowing citizens up to four national referenda per year – might mean that mass frustration can be easily translated into action. Such cases may being echoed around the EU, where anti-immigration parties may make big gains in the European Parliament election in May.

Switzerland is not the only European country to ponder limiting immigration into the country. The problem of migrants is a big political issue in Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany and Finland. Germany’s anti-EU Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has begun calling for a similar law to be implemented in Germany. “Independent of the content of the Swiss referendum, we should also create an immigration law in Germany which is based on the qualifications and integration abilities of the immigrants, and effectively prevents immigration into our social support systems,” AfD spokesperson Bernd Lucke stated, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel.

London is another European city entered a state of panic over the levels of foreigners wishing to immigrate to the country. But unlike Switzerland, the UK is an EU member and the agreement on a free movement with Brussels is perceived as a heavy burden. The Prime Minister David Cameron, famous for his generally anti-immigrant attitudes, proposed a variety of anti-immigration measures. He said in November that governments should be able to limit the annual number of EU migrants or withhold the rights to full freedom of movement until specific countries achieved a certain per capita Gross Domestic Product.

Comments from Britain on the Swiss anti-immigration referendum were very positive. Nigel Farage, the leader of the hard-right anti-immigration UK Independence Party, congratulated the Swiss citizens on having the” freedom to decide the number and skill level of who they wish to work and stay in their country.”

Economic Issues

“If I was forced to only consider hiring Swiss people, I would just move,” said 41-year-old Schwenke, who founded Thelkin, a maker of mechanical testing equipment for orthopedic implants in the northeastern town of Winterthur in 2010. He continues that, “for a company my size, the right people are more important than the tax benefits.”

Experts are united in their opinion that Switzerland’s prosperity is the product of the country’s networked economy. It has profited enormously from open borders and from an influx of qualified foreign workers. Indeed, the European Union is its largest trading partner. “Many people feel this is challenging their identity, even if there isn’t any concrete economic impact on a personal level,” said Georg Lutz, a professor of political science at the University of Lausanne. As innovation is the driver of the Swiss economy, the country needs highly qualified workers from inside Switzerland as well as from abroad. According to business information provider Orell Fuessli Wirtschaftsinfmation, four in every ten companies in Switzerland are founded by foreigners. In 2013, they created around 30,000 new jobs.

Foreigners are bigger shoppers as well. As Credit Suisse estimates around one quarter of the growth in private consumption since 2008 can be attributed to immigration. Foreign professionals have contributed to Switzerland’s economic success story over the past 150 years. Bringing the example of German-born Henri Nestle and Nicolas Hayek Sr. (who founded Swatch Group, the world’s biggest watchmaker), it is clear that immigrants play a big role in Swiss economy.

EU-Swiss relations

“One thing is clear: you can’t take advantage of a big European internal market and stay outside. This is what we have to discuss with Switzerland now,” slammed Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.

Switzerland, as a non-member of the EU but a country closely linked to the Union, has trade agreements with neighbouring countries, where the euro is widely accepted, and one can enter the country without passport. While outside the EU, its immigration policy is based on free movement of citizens, a fundamental core value of the European Union. The pact on free movement of people came into force 12 years ago. It was signed as part of a package of agreements with the EU.

According to the new constitutional provisions, residence permits for foreign nationals will be restricted through quantitative limits and quotas. The new constitutional text does not specify how high the quotas should be, not does it provides detailed information about who should set them and according to what criteria. All these details need further clarification at the legislative level. Regarding implementation, the Federal Council will submit a proposal to Parliament by the end of 2014.

Schulz made it clear that in the short term, a possible non-extension of the free movement of persons to Croatia by Switzerland is expected to have consequences. He explained that the extension of the free movement of persons to Croatia, which joined the EU on 1 July last year, was seen until now as a technicality and was expected to happen from 1 July 2014. But now EU officials fear that this would pose problems on the Swiss side and they would not be able to proceed with this step and announce a suspension.

Switzerland’s membership in the Schengen area of border-free travel could also hang in the balance. Air traffic, agriculture, research and the energy industry could become the first sectors to suffer under the new isolation. There are a huge number of issues captured in the Swiss vote, including one which reverberates particularly widely – how does the EU respond to referendum results?

Image: ‘Stopp Minarettverbot’ courtesy of rytc via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.


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