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Switzerland, immigration and the referendum of 9th February

 In Switzerland, voters had their say on three referendum questions: a federal decree concerning a constitutional amendment project aimed at creating an unlimited life fund to maintain and extend railways; a popular initiative demanding that abortion should not be covered by the compulsory health insurance policy; a popular initiative «against mass immigration». The third one caught the attention of Bern and Brussels, especially after it was approved by 50.3% of voters (the participation rate for this question was 55.8%).

In short the result of this vote has been the consent - if by a slim majority - to an important change in immigration policy; this paves the way for a restriction on the incoming flow of migrants and the State will now be tasked with setting a ceiling for the number of entry permissions for foreigners and asylum seekers. This is a change in approach that, of course, concerns EU citizens. In fact, as The Guardian highlighted, the referendum’s outcome contradicts the free movement of persons, included in the seven bilateral agreements (Bilateral Agreements I) which, since 1999, have worked towards relaxing the economic relations between the Swiss Confederation and the European Union.


According to the European Union External Action Service, outside of the European Economic Area, Switzerland is the state Brussels has the closest relations with and the Union is Bern’s biggest international trade partner. The result of the vote on 9th February therefore seems to represent a significant step backwards; especially if we consider that the choice by the Swiss electorate to limit the freedom of EU nationals to settle and work in their country could bring into question important provisions in the agreements regulating Switzerland's relations with Brussels, especially those easing the access of Swiss business to the Union’s market. As pointed out by The Economist, “four freedoms” of movement (concerning goods, services, people and capital) contribute to tie the two contracting parties and the non-recognition of one of these is equivalent to questioning the others. The same weekly newspaper suggests that in voting «against mass immigration» the Swiss electorate are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot because of the substantial role business with the European Union and skilled non-national workers play in the Swiss economy.


Immigration does not represent a new social phenomenon in Switzerland and has played a large part in its economic and cultural history. Simply to mention some figuresfrom the most recent years, permanent non-national residents in 2008 exceeded 1,669,000, from which more than 1,037,000 were originally from EU and EFTA countries. In 2012, they reached 1,870,000, including nearly 1,192,000 people from EU or EFTA member states. According to the Federal Statistical Office, in 2012, the «population with an immigration background» - also including «Swiss citizens who acquired Swiss citizenship by birth or by naturalisation and who either immigrated to Switzerland or who have at least one parent born abroad» - was «34.7% of the permanent resident population aged 15 or over», a third of them having the Swiss citizenship.


Therefore, the referendum on 9th February was not the effect of a sudden clash between an isolated population and a massive inflow of foreigners. Moreover, if we consider some numbers concerning the unemployment rate (4.4% in the last three months of 2012 and 4.1% one year later), it is clear that this inclination to restrict immigration is not even linked to a deterioration in the labour market’s conditions.


The referendum results could indicate a fear amongst the Swiss electorate of being exposed to the effects of the economic crisis in the EU, where the unemployment rate was 10.7% at the end of 2013. In any case, if the referendum «against mass immigration» marked a distance between Bern and Brussels, it also showed a common, growing tendency to follow the requests fostered by conservative and populist political movements identifying in immigration a source of problems for the local population. From within the EU, a concrete example is provided by France; 34% of the French - according to a recent survey by TNS Sofres– identified themselves as in agreement with the ideas advocated by the Front National, whose leader is the MEP Marine Le Pen. Le Pen - in an interviewwith Europe 1 - described the outcome of the referendum in Switzerland as a display of «good sense» and suggested it was an example to follow.


Certainly the “Hexagon” does not represent the only member state in which this kind of stance is taking root. A political approach focusing on managing - or preventing - structural economic problems through strict control and a substantial reduction of immigration is obtaining sympathizers in different areas of the Continent. It usually runs parallel to a Eurosceptic perspective and, in general, its exponents welcomed the result of the Swiss referendum.


            On the basis of the outcome on 9th February, within three years, Bern should convert the vote into legislative measures to set caps on immigration flows, with a system of quotas concerning citizens from within the EU as well as outside of it. This outcome represents a serious issue in terms of the economic and political relations between Switzerland and EU, but it should also prompt the European institutions to reflect seriously about the EU's response to the economic crisis; the “austerity approach” it seems has not only been unpopular within the Union but has also adversely affected public opinion in Switzerland, as a non-member state lying on a central area of the “Old Continent” who can still boast a strong labour market. Brussels needs to work harder to keep in tune with people inside and outside of the EU. Otherwise, its credibility runs the risk of being seriously undermined, both in the short term given the next European Parliament elections are just around the corner and more significantly in the long term also.


Angelo Tino is currently working as a Trainee at the United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe (UNRIC Brussels).


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