February 2014: Switzerland votes in a highly controversial referendum. The issue at stake – quota’s on immigration – shook up the continent. The outcome – in which more than half of the people voted in favor of such a quota – did so even more. Myrto Vogiatzi investigates the situation for Pandeia.
There was uproar two years ago in Basel, when Coop, the second largest retailer of Switzerland, ran an advertising campaign using the high German word for ‘to barbecue’, grillen, instead of the Swiss German grillieren. The aim was to widen its target market, since more than a quarter of Basel’s foreign residents are Germans and another 36,000 commute from Baden-Württemberg , Germany, every day. Quite clever, one would think. However, the ad was harshly criticized by the local media, forcing the retailer to retract the posters and issue new ones.
What the company underestimated is the country’s insecurity towards mounting immigration. About 80,000 migrants settle in Switzerland every year, making up roughly one quarter of the country’s population. This means Switzerland has one of the highest proportions of immigrants in the world. Nearly 70 per cent are EU/EEA/EFTA nationals, mostly from Germany, Italy and France. This, after all, is the result of the Free Movement of Persons Agreement signed with Brussels in 1999.
It’s an agreement 50.3 per cent of the Swiss were willing to endanger just a little over a month ago, when they approved a referendum proposal against mass migration. The initiative, led by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, requires the reintroduction of quotas as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.
The party believes the high proportion of foreigners put an undue strain on the country’s welfare system, housing and traffic infrastructure. “Now we want the power back. The government must represent the will of the Swiss people in Brussels – the sooner the better”, stated after the victory Christoph Bloecher, vice chair of the SVP. Other recent victories of the SVP include the initiative against the construction of minarets in 2009 and for the expulsion of foreign criminals in 2010.
The policy itself is not an extreme one; it simply means Switzerland can exercise the traditional sovereign right to limit its immigration intake . After all, the initiative doesn’t specify where the limit should be and most countries put limits to immigration.
However, it’s still unclear how the country can conform to the proposal the people voted for without breaking with the union. There is a bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the EU that neither of both parties can renew or denounce without the agreement of the other. Changing immigration laws without the agreement of the EU would be a violation.
“The single market isn’t Swiss cheese”, European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding told the Financial Times. “You cannot have a single market with holes in it. I doubt that member states will be ready to accept renegotiating the free movement of persons agreement alone and not touch the other bilateral agreements the EU has with Switzerland”.
Taking a more strident stance, France’s industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, described the outcome of the vote as ‘collective suicide’, while Didier Bukhalter, Switzerland’s foreign minister, warned that the anti-immigration vote targets some of the biggest economic contributors. Trade with Germany, for example, was worth nearly 100 billion Swiss Francs in 2012, accounting for more than a quarter of the country’s total foreign trade.
As a result of the vote, the EU has already suspended Switzerland’s participation in its multi-billion-euro Horizon 2020 research program and its Erasmus student exchange scheme. It has also stopped talks on a cross-border electricity agreement. The block has also frozen the agreement to grant Croatian job seekers access to the country.
EU officials are, of course, not the only ones disturbed by the unexpected result of the referendum. The Swiss government and business lobby groups had urged a vote against the proposal, emphasizing that certain sectors – including banking, healthcare, construction and research- rely on foreign specialists: 60 per cent of employees at the pharmaceutical giant Roche are foreigners, while half of the doctors at Basel’s university hospital do not hold a Swiss passport.
Even the national football team would be left with only three players, as German television showed. In the long run, it could mean that companies invest and hire less in Switzerland, while fearing expansion. On the other hand, some Swiss firms see it as an opportunity to boost recruitment of people from outside the EU and become more competitive in Asia.
A clever strategy
The most intriguing question though remains to be asked: why did the Swiss feel the need to hold a referendum in the first place? Are they just too used to direct democracy? According to the website Travailler en Suisse (Working in Switzerland), there are currently no less than 110,000 vacant jobs in the country and more official languages than any other in Europe.
What’s more, the OECD shows that among arrivals from the EU between 2010 and 2012, 69 per cent were highly skilled. “People who come here have already been educated at the expense of other countries, and they are usually fairly young and healthy: they’re topping up Switzerland’s benefits system, but they’re not taking anything out,” George Sheldon, a New York-born academic at Basel University, told The Guardian a few weeks ago. In fact, as the National Bank SNBN said, newcomers helped output to exceed its pre-crisis level by 5 per cent, generating a gain of at least $5.44 billion annually.
Yet far-right or right-wing populist parties in Europe (including France’s National Front or UKIP’s Nigel Farage in Britain) suggest that the Swiss are fed up with immigration. What we should keep in mind is that the relationship between ‘objective’ economic factors and attitudes towards immigration is not always straightforward. The fact that many citizens used their vote to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s policy towards the EU should have been expected.
“A loss of trust in Switzerland’s business and political elite may be one of the reasons the alpine nations voted in favour of putting strict limits on immigration”, had stated Johann Schneider-Ammann, the Swiss Economy Minister, three days after the results. Indeed, this insecurity towards centre-right parties drove a considerable amount of voters to the SVP, which in turn adopted much more persuasive strategies.
Illustrating immigration as aggressive crows or a tree with monster-like roots crushing Switzerland on a campaign ad is definitely scary, and that’s the point. After all, “who could possibly be in favor of mass anything?” said Sheldon, arguing that the most clever aspect of the SVP’s strategy was that they rarely specified what kind of immigration they were talking about.
Switzerland has three years in which to implement the amendment into legislation and renegotiate all the international treaties that contradict the new article. Reaching some kind of agreement could easily encourage other countries and euro skeptic politicians that the key principles of the EU are negotiable. But let’s not forget that Switzerland is one of the biggest importers of EU goods and its transport infrastructure provides a crucial link from northern to southern Europe. Refusing compromise is not in Europe’s interest.