Voters in Switzerland have narrowly approved a rightwing proposal to curb immigration. It imposes limits on the number of foreigners allowed in and may signal an end to the country’s free movement accord with the European Union. The initiative was approved by 50.3% of the votes and was passed by a majority of cantons.
Swiss Info The move by the Swiss People’s Party – known for its anti-foreigner and anti-EU agenda – will see the reintroduction of quotas, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.
Critically, it also stipulates that Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it. This in turn could threaten other bilateral agreements with the EU.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga described the outcome as “a pivotal decision with far-reaching consequences.” “It reflects unease of population growth in recent years,” she added. The cabinet now must submit a proposal to parliament on how it can be implemented.
The government will also start talks with relevant EU bodies and member states in order to discuss the next steps. There is a three-year time limit on such negotiations.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, holder of the rotating Swiss presidency, added the result would make negotiations with the EU on further bilateral accords more difficult. “But it is not a ‘Black Sunday’ for Switzerland. The people have decided and the government will impIement the decision for the best of the country,” he said.
When it comes to quotas, the government said it would set to work “without delay”. The cabinet and parliament also has three years to introduce the restrictions. The initiative calls for quotas to apply to all foreign nationals, including cross-border commuters and asylum seekers. Businesses must also give Swiss nationals priority when hiring staff. The finer details still needed to be worked out, the government said.
However, immigration caps are incompatible with the free movement of people accord whereby EU nationals are free to work or live in Switzerland. The European Commission issued a statement expressing its “regret” that the vote had passed. “This goes against the principle of the free movement of people between the European Union and Switzerland. The Union will examine the implications of this initiative on Swiss-EU relations as a whole,” ran the statement.
Turnout was 55.8%, among the highest attendance in the past decade. In the run-up to the vote, backers had argued Switzerland could not cope with a further increase in the number of immigrants, including asylum seekers, putting an undue strain on the country’s welfare system, housing and traffic infrastructure.
Previously the government has won all votes on the issues, but the People’s Party has boosted its backing over the past two decades. In 2010 voters approved an initiative by the political right to automatically expel foreign criminals from Switzerland. Senior People’s Party parliamentarians have hinted they are considering further political initiatives to restrict access to the Swiss labour market for foreigners, including the introduction of a point system to control immigration, similar to Canada.
Swiss voters are also likely to have the final say over the next two years on other proposals aimed at limiting immigration.
Not surprisingly, the Swiss government is pissed.