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Swiss Pass the Referendum “Stop Mass Immigration”

Hanspeter Wyss's picture

After a bitterly contested campaign a small majority of 50.3 percent of Swiss voters have passed the referendum “Stop Mass Immigration”  reintroducing quotas on immigration from EU countries. This vote on February 9 mobilized 56 percent of Swiss voters, which was one of the highest turnouts for the last 40 years. 

The referendum was expected to be close. That it has passed, however, is a surprise because the Swiss government as well as most business actors and political parties, except the national-conservative right wing Swiss People Party which launched the referendum, were campaigning against it. It is hard to generalize the reasons that explain the result of this vote, especially as there were significant geographical disparities in voting behavior across Switzerland (see map).  French-speaking areas against the referendum, German-speaking regions divided, and the only Italian-speaking canton firmly in favor of it.  And the cantons with the largest cities (Zurich, Geneva, and Basel) were all against the quotas.

On one hand, certainly the number of EU migrants arriving in recent years has been significant. Since allowing the free movement of persons of EU citizens in 2007, between 60,000 to 80,000 people, most of them from Germany, Portugal, France and Italy, have come annually to work in Switzerland.  This is a significant number for a country of 8 million people in which almost a fifth of its population are foreigners. On the other hand, unemployment – for which migrants are often a scapegoat – is still very low in Switzerland at about three percent.

It appears that Swiss voters were more concerned about rising house prices, increasingly crowded public transport, growing traffic jams, and competition for the best education and healthcare.

In particular, the business sector in Switzerland will be concerned about the outcome. It depends on the EU talent pool, and has been concerned that a ‘yes’ vote will undermine Swiss competitiveness.  What is more, approval of the initiative not only impacts immigration, but is likely to have larger consequences for Switzerland’s relations with the EU, jeopardizing other accords which were signed in 1999, including on trade. 56 percent of Swiss exports go to and 80 percent come from the EU. There are concerns that the low unemployment rate will now increase if access to the single market is limited.   Moreover, this referendum will not only impact foreign workers in Switzerland but also the 450,000 Swiss nationals currently living in the European Union whose status is now being jeopardized.

While Switzerland’s unique form of ‘direct democracy’ makes comparisons difficult, there are lessons to learn from the Swiss referendum for other European governments, which are facing growing influence from anti-immigration political parties.  One is to guard against complacency, and advocate actively in favor of immigration. A second is to build closer alliances with business – in Switzerland and elsewhere, the business sector is often in a stronger position than the government to make the case for migration. A third lesson concerns the need to preserve the space for an objective debate on immigration. What is needed is an honest and informed debate about the benefits and pitfalls of immigration.  In Switzerland voters have reacted to media hype and political campaigning rather than reality, and their reaction is likely to negatively impact on the country’s economy and international standing.

According to the text adopted, over the next 3 years Swiss law should be amended and relevant international treaties (mainly the Bilateral Agreements with the EU) will have to be renegotiated accordingly. Though being disappointed, the Swiss Government, the EU and business actors have no other choice than to accept the result and start working towards mutually agreeable and beneficial arrangements. This may actually represent an opportunity to highlight migration’s positive impacts. The role that the Swiss People Party will play in this process remains to be determined as many voices in Switzerland now believe the initiators of the referendum should be the first to make concrete proposals on the way forward.