Swiss did not weigh consequences of referendum, EU says

The Swiss may not have weighed up all the consequences of voting in a referendum for immigration quotas for EU citizens, an EU official said yesterday (10 February).



“I am not sure that all the consequences [of a vote to introduce immigration quotas] have been part of the debate in Switzerland ahead of the referendum,” an EU official told reporters.

Swiss voters on Sunday narrowly backed proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas with the European Union. The results are likely to put EU-Swiss relations to the test, as the Union sees the free movement of persons as a “sacred” principle which cannot be dissociated from the free movement of goods and services.

The proposal may have looked simple to Swiss voters, as it referred to quotas on immigration. But now they realise that this has consequences on issues such as railroad or air transport, the official said.

One million of EU citizens living in Switzerland and 400,000 Swiss citizens living in EU countries feel anxiety following the referendum, as they would find themselves in “some kind of limbo” which could have “quite destabilising consequences for some of these people personally”, the official added.

The Guillotine Clause

The official insisted that the vote would not trigger in itself immediate consequences.

“We don’t know when this is going to happen and how the Swiss government envisages taking the issue forward”, the official said, explaining that in theory at least, the Swiss government had three years to enact the referendum results.

“Clearly, this [enacting the referendum results] would not be acceptable to the EU”, he said, adding that such step would have “very serious consequences for EU-Swiss relations across the board”.

If and when the Swiss authorities enact the referendum results by introducing quotas to EU citizens, this will represent a breach of the existing EU-Switzerland agreements and will trigger the so-called “guillotine clause”.

The Guillotine Clause in EU-Switzerland agreements stipulates that if one agreement is terminated, then the entire body of treaties will be null and void. What this means is not that “trains will stop running and airplanes would stop flying”, but “it would make life much more complicated”, the official said.

But the Guillotine Clause can be triggered only by unanimity among the EU members. Asked if the UK would back the use of the Guillotine Clause on an issue such as immigration quotas, which has recently been advocated by Prime Minister David Cameron himself, the EU official said he would not speculate.

The Croatia issue

The EU official made it clear that in the short term, a possible non-extension of the free movement of persons to Croatia by Switzerland is expected to have consequences. He explained that the extension of the free movement of persons to Croatia, which joined the EU on 1 July last year, was seen until now as a technicality and was expected to happen from 1 July 2014. But now EU officials fear that this would pose problems on the Swiss side and they would not be able to proceed with this step and announce a suspension.

In that case, the EU might “assess the consequences” of on-going negotiations with Switzerland, particularly in the area of free movement in research programs such as Horizon 2020 and education program such as Erasmus+. This would mean that the EU would suspend the negotiation of those agreements with Switzerland.

Negotiation mandate

As paradoxical as it may appear, regarding the ongoing discussions for a new EU-Switzerland institutional framework, the EU expects that next week a negotiating mandate would be agreed at the level of EU ambassadors without difficulty. Switzerland has already agreed such a mandate.

“This vote underlines the need of an overarching institutional framework governing our relations and getting away from sectorial bilateral relations”, the official said.

EU officials also said that the Swiss referendum could indirectly affect relations in the Schengen framework, because in their words if immigration quotes are introduced, controls at the borders are likely to be introduced on the Swiss side. Switzerland is full member of the EU border-free Schengen area.

Power agreement frozen

In the meantime, the European Commission has stopped talks with Switzerland on a cross-border electricity agreement, a spokeswoman for the EU executive said yesterday.

The Commission has been seeking closer power trading ties with Switzerland to complement a common energy market for the EU, which it has a deadline to complete this year.

"No technical negotiations on the electricity agreement between Switzerland and the EU are foreseen for the moment," Commission spokeswoman Sabine Berger said. "The way forward needs to be analysed in view of the broader context of the bilateral relations."

Reuters quoted EU ministers in Brussels commenting the results of the Swiss referendum:

"Switzerland has rather damaged itself with this result," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters on arrival in Brussels for a meeting with his EU colleagues. "Switzerland must realise that cherry picking with the EU is not a long-term strategy."

"There will be consequences, that's clear," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. "You can't have privileged access to the European internal market and on the other hand, dilute free circulation."

Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore called the result "very disturbing".  

Switzerland is the third largest economic partner of the EU, after the United States and China. Switzerland is able to participate in the EU's single market thanks to a series of bilateral agreements. This approach suits the Swiss confederation, but its complexity has become problematic for the EU and attempts were up to now under way to simplify the relationship.

Despite the country's wealth and economic success, immigration is a hot-button issue in Switzerland where the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) has long blamed rising rents, crowded public transport and higher crime on an influx of foreigners.

Switzerland’s immigration policy is based on free movement of people from the EU and allowing a restricted number of non-EU citizens to enter the country. Swiss industry heavyweights such as drugmakers Roche and Novartis as well as banks UBS and Credit Suisse have traditionally looked outside the country for highly skilled and specialised staff.

The Swiss business community has warned that re-imposing immigration quotas on EU citizens quotas would call the country's bilateral agreements with the bloc into question [more]. 

  • 11 Feb.: Swiss authorities are expected to make statements following the referendum

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