Swiss voters yesterday (9 February) narrowly backed proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union. The European Commission regretted the result which it said contravened the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland. “The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole,” the EU executive said.
While neutral Switzerland is not a member of the EU, its immigration policy is based on free movement of citizens to and from the EU, with some exceptions, as well as allowing in a restricted number of non-EU citizens.
That pact on free movement of people, which came into force 12 years ago, was signed as part of a package of agreements with the EU, some of which could now be in danger of unravelling, to say nothing of the effect on a globally oriented economy that employs large numbers of foreign professionals.
"This is a turning point, a change of system with far- reaching consequences for Switzerland," Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told journalists in Berne.
The European Commission in Brussels said in a statement that the vote went against the principle of free movement of people. It said it would examine the implications for its relations with Switzerland, taking into account the position of the government, which had urged citizens to vote 'no'.
"For us, EU-Swiss relations come as a package," said Hannes Swoboda, a member of the European Parliament. "If Switzerland suspends immigration from the EU, it will not be able to count on all the economic and trade benefits it is currently enjoying. We will not allow ... cherry-picking."
In a nail-biting vote, 50.3% backed the "Stop mass immigration" initiative, which also won the required majority approval in more than half of Swiss cantons or regions, Swiss television said.
The outcome obliges the government to turn the initiative, spearheaded by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), into law within three years.
It reflects growing concern among the Swiss population that immigrants are eroding the nation's distinctive Alpine culture and contributing to rising rents, crowded transport and more crime.
Net immigration runs at around 70,000 people per year on average. Foreigners make up 23% of the population of 8 million, second in Europe only to Luxembourg.
"This is an enormously important decision because the direction must now be shifted," SVP politician Luzi Stamm told Swiss television. "The Swiss population have said that, instead of free movement of people, quotas have to be introduced."
The Swiss system of direct democracy - which allows for up to four national referenda per year - means popular dissatisfaction can be translated into action relatively easily.
However, such concerns are being echoed around the EU's wealthier countries, where anti-immigration parties such as the UK Independence Party look set to make big gains in elections to the European Parliament in May.
"I fear a 'yes' from Switzerland would set off a further round of debate about free movement of persons in the EU," European Parliament President Martin Schulz told the Swiss newspaper NZZ am Sonntag ahead of the vote.
The provisions of the initiative require the restriction of residence permits for foreign nationals, including cross-border commuters and asylum seekers, according to quotas, the government said in a statement.
These limits will now need to be defined at a legislative level, it said.
Nestlé and Hayek
Foreign professionals have helped to power Switzerland's economic success story over the past 150 years, from German-born Henri Nestlé , who gave his name to the world's largest food company, to Nicolas Hayek senior, who founded Swatch Group , the world's biggest watchmaker.
The European Union is Switzerland's biggest trading partner, buying 110 billion Swiss francs' ( €90 billion) worth of goods in 2013.
Opponents of the move say it could exacerbate a shortage of skilled workers in Switzerland, the home of Roche, Novartis, UBS and other multinationals filled with foreign professionals.
"Explanatory and constructive talks with the EU are needed urgently," the Swiss Banking Association tweeted after the result.
Swiss voters generally have a history of voting down proposals that they feel could hurt their country's economic success story or threaten its competitiveness.
Last year, they rejected a proposal to cap the salaries of top executives at 12 times that of the company's lowest wage, amid warnings from industry leaders that the economy could suffer.
But immigration has become a growing concern. In 2009, Swiss voters defied government advice by backing a ban the construction of minarets, and in 2010 they voted to automatically deport foreigners convicted of serious crimes.
The way the EU handles the Swiss case could have wider implications, as UK Prime Minister David Cameron too has recently spoken of introducing caps or quotas for immigrants from new EU members. The Commission clearly said that this goes against EU rules and could have far-reaching consequences.
Cameron wants his country’s relationship with the Union be renegotiated before bringing the UK’s EU membership issue to a referendum vote by the end of 2017
The Swiss Federal Council (the government) issued a statement following the announcement of the referendum results, saying that it “interprets the outcome of this referendum as a reflection of unease with regard to population growth in recent years”.
“The Federal Council will submit a proposal on its implementation to parliament as soon as possible. As the new constitutional text runs contrary to the agreement on the free movement of persons, the Federal Council will also enter into discussion with the relevant bodies of the EU and its member states, in order to discuss the next steps and open negotiations. The constitutional provisions also allow a period of three years for these negotiations.
“The President of the Swiss Confederation, Didier Burkhalter, explained on Sunday that the Federal Council will explore ways in which Switzerland's relations with the EU can be put on a new footing. At the same time, however, the president stressed that the agreement on the free movement of persons and the other bilateral agreements will remain in place until a new legal status has been established,” the Swiss authorities’ statement says.
Jo Leinen MEP, president of the European Movement International, stated: “The European Union’s fundamental freedoms of free movement of persons and free movement of goods belong together - you cannot have one without the other. Switzerland cannot expect that its goods continue to flow freely to the huge European market, while it closes its borders to EU citizens. The restriction of immigration from the EU puts all bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland into question.”
European partners threatened today (10 February) to review their relations with Switzerland.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described the vote, initiated by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) and opposed by the government in Berne, as a "worrying" move that showed Switzerland was withdrawing into itself.
"We're going to review our relations with Switzerland," Fabius told RTL radio.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said that while Berlin respected the result, it would create "considerable problems" for Switzerland's relationship with the EU. The European Commission said it went against the principle of free movement between the Alpine nation and the EU that has existed for over a decade.
"The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole," Commission spokesperson Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.