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By Ray Smith for IPS
ZURICH, Switzerland, Feb 23 2014 (IPS) – Swiss voters have approved an initiative by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) aimed at limiting immigration. The result not only threatens the free movement of people, but all agreements between Switzerland and the European Union.
The voting results have been a shock for open-minded Swiss citizens, foreigners living in the country and the whole European audience.
In all 50.3 percent of the Swiss voted in favour of the SVP’s “initiative against mass immigration”, which demanded the introduction of quantitative limits and quotas for foreigners and a renegotiation of the “Agreement on the free movement of people” with the EU. The Swiss government now faces the difficult task of introducing the new constitutional measures at the legislative level.
Several foreign ministers of EU member states, and the European Commission (EC), the executive arm of the EU, have regretted the Swiss decision. In its initial statement, the EC wrote that the introduction of quantitative limits to immigration “goes against the principle of free movement of persons” and that the EC intends to “examine the implications on this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole.”
Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, said that as long as the Swiss government didn’t suspend its bilateral agreements with the EU, they would remain valid, signalling that the EU for now will not terminate either the agreement on the free movement of people or any of the other accords.
However, Schultz stated that it would be “difficult to limit the free movement of citizens and not limit the free movement of services, for example.” He made it clear that if Switzerland is no longer able to fulfil the conditions of the agreement, all other bilateral agreements were at risk.
Currently, about 430,000 Swiss citizens live in the EU, while more than a million EU citizens call Switzerland their home, and another 230,000 commute to their Swiss workplaces daily. Major sectors of the Swiss economy such as construction, the hotel and restaurant industry, and health services depend on foreign workers.
There’s been strong resistance in Switzerland to joining the EU. However, the two entities are bound by at least a hundred bilateral agreements. As regards trade in goods and services, Switzerland is the EU’s third-largest economic partner, while 57 percent of Swiss exports in goods go to EU member states and 78 percent of its imports come from there.
For Andreas Kellerhals, Director of the Europe Institute at the University of Zurich (EIZ), the EU’s reaction to the Swiss vote isn’t just a strategic threat.
“In the eyes of the EU, the Agreement on the free movement of people isn’t negotiable, as freedom of movement is one of its four basic pillars,” Kellerhals told IPS. He points out that in 1999, the EU only agreed to the bilateral path because the Swiss gave in to an accord on the free movement of people.
The Federal Council is now exploring ways to put its relationship with the EU on a new footing, as it hardly sees how immigration quotas could be compatible with the principle of free movement of people.
“Legally, that isn’t possible,” Kellerhals agrees. “Technically, Switzerland could set the quotas high enough so they couldn’t be exceeded; however I don’t think the EU will accept that.”
Further, that strategy would jar with the SVP initiative and allow the right-wing party to further criticise and pressure the Swiss government. No matter how the Federal Council negotiates with the EU, it can only lose.
For foreigners living and working in Switzerland, the vote was a disaster. Or, as Rita Schiavi, member of the executive board of the largest Swiss trade union Unia puts it: “A slap in the face of nearly two million migrants, who have a huge hand in making Switzerland as prosperous at it is.” Schiavi told IPS that migrants are frustrated and alienated.
In concrete, the SVP demands a return to the so-called Saisonnierstatut, a regulation for seasonal workers that had been in place for seven decades. It means that migrant workers wouldn’t be allowed to bring with them their families, that they would depend on their employers, and would risk losing their stay permits in case of unemployment.
“Those who have voted for the SVP initiative regard migrants not as human beings, but as pure workforce,” said Schiavi.
Returning to some kind of Saisonnierstatut wouldn’t just harm affected migrants, but the Swiss economy as a whole. Swiss companies have a strong desire for skilled foreign personnel, who in the future may find Switzerland less attractive than before, despite higher wages.
Switzerland’s economic lobby has long fought the initiative against immigration, as a return to quotas and contingents would complicate their business and reduce planning reliability. “Multinational companies may relocate or strengthen their branches abroad which could threaten the jobs of Swiss employees, too,” said Schiavi.
In Schiavi’s opinion, urgent political action is now required to deal with those worries and fears that had motivated voters to approve the SVP initiative. It’s measures that trade unions have demanded for many years: “We need to reduce wage dumping, improve job protection, introduce measures in the housing sector and set a national minimum wage,” said Schiavi.
For the moment, half of the Swiss population is licking their wounds, while the other half led by the SVP triumphs. Nevertheless, the right-wing effort to regain control over immigration and the Swiss-EU relations may lead to the opposite: to a massive loss in sovereignty. Soon the Swiss delegation travelling to Brussels may have no option but to hope for the EU’s goodwill.