Switzerland’s Immigration Referendum is a truly European Issue

euro swiss

The Swiss government, like many other governments in Europe, views freedom of movement, as essential to the European single market. Over half of Swiss products are sold throughout the EU. Employers vastly benefit from being able to pick and choose skilled workers from throughout the EU to add to an already booming Swiss economy. Yet on 9 February a referendum was passed by the narrowest of margins, only 50.3%, to introduce a quota on immigration into the country.

Although Switzerland is not part of the EU, preferring to remain independent, it still maintains strong ties and partakes in policies enjoyed by EU member states, including the freedom of movement that allows the European single market to flourish and by extension the countries that are integrated into this system. These bilateral agreements were the product of years of negotiations between Brussels and the European Commission, resulting in a situation seemingly beneficial to both parties, where the 500 or so million EU residents were on a par with their Swiss counterparts in terms of employment. A quasi-utopian economic state of affairs, one might think. But amidst the bountiful autonomy that reigns in Switzerland, a few facts protrude that won’t have failed to resonate with a sizeable portion of the electorate. One quarter of the country’s eight million strong population are foreign. In 2013, 80,000 new immigrants arrived.  Introduce the Swiss People’s Party (SVP).

A right-wing political party, they only gained 26.6% of the vote in the 2011 elections; yet exert a considerable influence in Switzerland, particularly concerning government expansion of things such as services and the welfare state. And whilst they spearheaded the quota campaign with the vigour that UKIP applies to its wish to see Britain leave the EU – it is clear that the division between those in Switzerland who are pro-migration, and those opposed to what one Swiss newspaper, Corriere del Ticino described as “the influx of foreigners”, is far more endemic than Brussels anticipated≈. General media reaction to the results of the vote ranged from anxiety pertaining to the future of Swiss-EU ties, optimism about the part this new development will play in re-forging socio-economic policy in Switzerland, and concern about its knock-on effects that will surely bring the issue of cross-border migration home to roost for many EU governments.

A number of questions therefore arise out of this event. Where will Switzerland stand in terms of its EU trade links, considering that its ability to employ foreigners currently gives it a competitive edge when navigating the vastness of the European single market?  Given that the Swiss people’s vote is law, and the divisions between both Swiss-born and foreign nationals are likely to increase due to these new measures, will the government and business leaders try to weather the storm that is surely on the horizon in the form of exclusion from EU privileges it worked so hard to attain? And, with the European parliamentary elections less than three months away, will such a populist view on immigration pervade into the minds of other political leaders faced with the same burgeoning issues? Despite media speculation, it is unlikely that such a domino effect is going to cripple the flow of the free market, although that hasn’t stopped high-ranking officials, such as EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, from expressing doubt as to the benefits that such a proposal would garnish on EU-Swiss relations, “the single market is not a Swiss cheese-you cannot have a single market with holes in it”.  However, full EU members such as Britain cannot afford to view these developments with comfortable distance. With increasing pressure from backbenchers and the steady rise of UKIP’s attempt to plant the seeds of an EU exit strategy, the PM will surely take these political developments in Switzerland into account when planning his next move regarding immigration policy. And what of Switzerland? With already-existing pressure being exerted on Brussels regarding the intricacies of immigration from Britain and others, the introduction of quotas risks not only incurring the wrath of member states who rely on Swiss import and export, both in human terms and commercially, but limits the number of political and economic bargaining chips that the country currently holds in relation to its trademark, almost antithetical blend of sovereign independence and vital EU connections.

Jon Chapman

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