The Significance of Switzerland’s Immigration Referendum
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th February, 2014
UKIP and other European populist parties have been crowing about the recent referendum in Switzerland, by which the Swiss very narrowly voted to introduce immigration quotas, which will put the country in conflict with several aspects of its relationship with the EU, notably regarding the principle of free movement. Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is part of the Schengen area and accepted many EU laws and regulations in order to be able to benefit from the European Single Market through a whole series of bilateral agreements. All of the main Swiss political parties except for the nationalist Swiss People’s Party opposed the call for immigration quotas, as did the business community, as they understand the complex implications of the decision. The result is bad for Switzerland and bad for the EU and highlights the dangers of referenda on populist issues such as immigration controls. Lukas Schuerch, Secretary General of the New European Movement Switzerland, has written a very helpful account of what the vote means:
On Sunday the 9th of February Swiss voters narrowly accepted a right-wing initiative to curb immigration. It demands to reintroduce quotas to control immigration to Switzerland. All the international treaties that contradict the new article the Swiss constitution must now be renegotiated within three years. If no solution is found that will allow Switzerland to amend its international treaty commitments in a way that Switzerland can reintroduce contingents on migration, then the Swiss government is obliged to break those treaties. The exact rate of the quotas will have to be fixed by the parliament.
The initiative was approved by just 50.3% of the votes and was passed by a majority of cantons. We can see a clear gap between cities and the countryside. In metropolitan areas where a lot of immigrants live and work, the initiative was defeated. But in rural areas, where we find a significantly smaller number of foreigners, the acceptance of the initiative was much higher. There was also a gap between the often more open minded French speaking part and the rest of Switzerland.
The adaption of the initiative puts the bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the European Union in danger. Quotas are not compatible with the «Free Movement of Persons Agreement» which Switzerland adopted in 1999. The agreement is linked to six other bilateral agreements, which concern directly the access to the EU’s single market. Should any of those fall – and since last Sunday we are no longer sure they will not – all the others become invalid within six months. The EU clearly stated that there is no possibility to reintroduce quotas along with the «Free Movement of People Agreement».
There are immediate effects that challenge the general relationship and Switzerland-based international (or at least exporting) companies have with the European Union:
First, a legal uncertainty occurs. Nobody knows how the relations with the European Union will evolve and when companies will be able to engage in long term business planning. Even if all persons without a Swiss passport who currently live and work in Switzerland are not directly affected until their visas will expire, Switzerland will face problems attracting talent from all over Europe and the world. It is also not clear how Switzerland will be able to participate in the single market. The image of the country as an open community with a successful economy will suffer for a long time.
Second, the adoption of this initiative creates a new bureaucratic burden for companies: While the principle of free movement of people stipulates that everybody within the European Union is entitled to work in any EU country without discrimination (including Switzerland as a non-EU Member State), the referendum initiative demands a prioritization for domestic persons. These two principles cannot be combined and will lead to difficult negotiations with the EU without any prospect of solution. In the not so distant future Swiss companies will be obliged to prove that there is no Swiss employee with similar qualifications for the job before hiring a non-Swiss worker.
Third, Switzerland’s «bilateral way» with the EU is brought into question. All the market access agreements of the «Bilateral-one-package» method employed between Switzerland and the EU (dating from 1999 and have come into force in 2002) are at stake. Furthermore, it is completely unclear how to proceed with the dossiers that are still in negotiation (such as energy, financial market, agriculture, food and participation on EU programs on research, education, culture). The EU has already suspended the negotiations of a framework agreement to resolve the “institutional questions” between Switzerland and the EU (implementation of EU legislation, interpretation, supervision, dispute settlement) and those of the electricity agreement.
Fourth, Switzerland is sending a dangerous signal to Europe and eurosceptic politicians and is thereby harming the system of free movement of people in the EU as a whole.
We all know that the implementation of the principle of free movement of persons is not perfect. But nevertheless we all profit from a fruitful exchange within Europe. We should therefore altogether work hard to improve the framework of the free movement of persons instead of just closing the borders.