Swiss business leaders campaign against limiting immigration

Defaced anti-immigration advert. Switzerland, 2007. [oledoe/Flickr]

Prominent Swiss business leaders and politicians urged the country on Sunday to reject a referendum next month that aims to impose strict limits on immigration, warning that the measure would damage the economy.

Switzerland will vote on 30 November on an initiative put forward by environmentalist group Ecopop, which proposes capping the number of immigrants at just 0.2% of the resident population, or the equivalent of 16,000 people per year.

“It is clear that the Ecopop initiative would truly be a catastrophe for the country,” the head of Swiss drugmaker Roche , Severin Schwan, told Swiss paper Sonntags Zeitung — one of a number of leading national figures who spoke out against the referendum in Sunday’s newspapers.

“Switzerland stands for reliability, openness and innovation,” he said, underscoring fears that the vote could lead to the gradual isolation of the neutral, landlocked nation, which is not a member of the European Union.

Ecopop will be the second anti-immigration referendum in Switzerland in just nine months, coming on the heels of a right-wing initiative to introduce quotas on EU citizens that was narrowly backed by voters in February.

That vote strained Switzerland’s relations with Europe and the country’s political and business elite fear even tighter immigration restrictions will deter investors and could force companies to relocate.

“Within a few years this would lead to a big labour shortage in various areas… Ecopop would force Switzerland directly into a recession,” Heinz Karrer, the head of the Economiesuisse business lobby, told Sonntags Blick newspaper.

Ecopop’s supporters say there is too much pressure on land and natural resources in Switzerland, whose population has risen more than 140% since 1990, with foreigners accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s eight million population.

Swiss banks including UBS and Credit Suisse are especially dependent on the flow of foreign workers, employing up to 25% of their staff from the EU.

Most political parties have come out against the initiative — even the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) which proposed the February vote on immigration quotas.

The head of Switzerland’s Federal Department of Home Affairs, Alain Berset, and Swiss Economy Minister, Johann Schneider-Ammann, warned in separate newspaper interviews that the Ecopop initiative could have a negative impact.

“We will control immigration better, but no harm should come to our bilateral relations with the EU,” Schneider-Ammann was quoted as saying. 

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.

  • 30 November: Swiss will vote to accept or reject capping immigrants at 0.2% of the resident population

Subscribe to our newsletters