Switzerland gets first penalty for immigration vote


The European Union said yesterday (16 February) it had postponed negotiations with Switzerland on its participation in multibillion-dollar research and educational schemes, after Berne said it could not sign in its present form an agreement to extend the free movement of people to Croatia, the newest EU member. 



The Swiss decision was expected following a referendum in the Alpine nation held on 9 February, in which a narrow majority backed proposals to reintroduce immigration quotas for the European Union.

Switzerland is legally obliged to open its labour market to Croatian nationals in the next 10 years, started from 1 July 2014. The Swiss press quoted the Croat ambassador in Berne, Aleksandar Heina, as saying that it was unacceptable for Switzerland to treat his country as not belonging to the EU for the next three years. Switzerland has three years to enact the referendum result.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has warned that the narrow Swiss vote to restore quotas for migrants from the EU breaches an accord with Brussels and would have "serious consequences" for relations between the wealthy Alpine nation and the EU.

Free movement of labour is one of the EU's fundamental principles.

In one immediate consequence, the Commission said it was postponing talks on Swiss participation in both the EU's 80-billion Horizon 2020 research programme and its 14.7-billion Erasmus+ educational exchange programme. Both schemes cover the period from 2014 to 2020.

A Commission spokesman said there was a close link between Swiss participation in Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ and the planned Swiss agreement with Croatia as the EU schemes involved the free movement of researchers and students.

"The protocol [with Croatia] has not been signed yet. Given the circumstances and in the absence of a clear political signal to do so, upcoming negotiation rounds have been postponed until Switzerland signs the protocol," he said.

The EU has already put on hold talks on a cross-border electricity agreement with Switzerland.

Benefits vs consequences

The EU allows some non-EU countries to participate in its Horizon 2020 programme, which allocates grants to fund world-class science projects, and Erasmus+.

Under the previous EU research programme, which ended last year, Swiss researchers were awarded 1.8 billion in EU funding for research in areas such as information technology, health and nanosciences, EU science commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, said in a speech in Berne last month.

Erasmus+ will provide opportunities for more than 4 million Europeans to study, train, gain work experience or volunteer abroad.

In an interview with Reuters last week, Barroso hinted at more far-reaching consequences from the vote, saying Switzerland could not enjoy all the benefits of the EU, the world's biggest market, without reciprocal access.

While he did not spell out any specific sanctions, Barroso implied that Swiss people could lose the right to live and work in the EU, and Swiss companies might also face obstacles.

Swiss government spokesman Philipp Schwander said earlier on Sunday that Switzerland could not sign the labour market pact with Croatia in the agreed form "due to the new constitutional provision provided by the 9 February vote."

He said Switzerland was still keen to seal the deal with Croatia in a way that took the vote into account and did not discriminate against Croatian workers.

The referendum, backed by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), has sent Swiss diplomats scrambling to contain the damage in Brussels.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga will be in Austria for a previously planned trip on Monday, while Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter will fly to Berlin to meet German chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday.

Swiss newspapers were full of suggestions for what to do next, including calls by the Socialist Party for a new vote.

Swiss business leaders say they are increasingly concerned about other popular votes coming up, including one on May 18 to install the world's highest minimum wage, 22 Swiss francs (18) an hour. Another, set for late in the year, seeks to cap population growth through immigration at 0.2% a year.

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]. 

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