Switzerland to favour EU citizens in immigration quotas as the risk of a new referendum looms

Eu-Swiss border control

Eu-Swiss border control

Four months have passed since Swiss voters narrowly approved the introduction of quotas on immigration with a referendum last February and the central European country has now revealed its ‘great’ plan. Last Friday, with an official government statement, the Federal Council has finally set out the intentions for new immigration quotas, and surprises were not missing.

Switzerland apparently plans to impose fewer limits on workers from the European Union than on those from other countries in a new immigration law. “Admission for nationals of EU and EFTA states should be less restrictively regulated than for persons from third countries. In contrast to third-country nationals” the statement said. “EU and EFTA nationals may still be admitted even if they lack specialist qualifications”. This is the biggest news contained in the statement and many see this move as an attempt to limit the friction with the EU over the new rules. Last February, right after the vote, the EU described the outcome of the poll as “a threat to our bilateral agreements”, and declared that the decision went “against the principle of free movement, inherent to European values and to the EU-Switzerland free trade agreement”. And here, after four months, we have the Swiss reply: “The implementation of the new constitutional provision will not be limited to a revision of the regulations on immigration”, Swiss government’s statement said, “the Federal Council plans to maintain and develop Switzerland’s close and crucial relations with the EU and its member states”, it added. And this smells exactly like an attempt to lower the volume of EU immigrants.

Now the match is open, and we believe it is very interesting one. Think about this though: Switzerland has by choice, by heart and by “vocation” a system of direct democracy, in which the citizens decide and form consensus on policy initiatives directly, and so the February 9 referendum is perfectly aligned with this principle. On the other hand Switzerland has signed a pact that since 2002 has allowed Swiss and EU citizens to cross the border freely and work on either side as long as they have a contract or are self-employed. We are also pretty sure that Switzerland recognises as highly important an agreement that was signed with its top economic partner, the EU. What now?

Switzerland is not part of the EU but, as a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), has signed agreements with the 28-nation bloc, including on free movement of labour, as we said. Swiss authorities now basically want to re-adapt the free-movement accords to the new constitutional article, result of last February’s vote, but the EU will hardly be a good speaker. “The commission has no intention of renegotiating the Free Movement of Persons Agreement with the objective of introducing quotas and national preference,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for European Union foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton, said in a statement, as reported by Bloomberg. “Quantitative limits and national preference are contrary to our treaties. Negotiating them is not an option for the commission”. Kocijancic also said the EU would examine Switzerland’s draft law before giving an official answer. Free movement of labour is one of the EU’s fundamental principles and officials have told Switzerland it cannot basically make some kind of personal selection of the benefits of market access without accepting the obligations it entails.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which was the February 9 Referendum’s main promoter, has already highly criticized the plan and basically the Government’s position with the EU. “Under no circumstances will the People’s Party accept that the new law is thwarted in such a manner”, said the party. The SVP, which is now the largest party in the Swiss Parliament, may well state that they will not accept the result of the referendum being attacked. The SVP based its campaign for the referendum on fears that the Swiss culture is being eroded by foreigners, who account for nearly a quarter of the population (one of the highest rates in Europe). We should also keep in mind, for a full comprehension of the importance of this topic – not only for Switzerland and its neighbors like Italy, Germany and France, home of thousands of commuters who work in Switzerland but live across the border, but for the entire European continent – that those concerns are not limited to this country, but indeed are very popular in many western countries, where populist and nationalist parties claim that migrants from ex-communist member states are hitting local workers.

On the other hand, there’s something else that deserves our attention. Is Switzerland convinced that there won’t be any negative effect on its prosperous economy after the introduction of quotas on immigration? Bloomberg revealed some interesting data which was reported by the Swiss national Bank. According to those studies, immigration helped propel economic output almost 5 percent above its pre-crisis level. Another survey of economists, published by Bloomberg in February, says that the decision to limit immigration will hurt economic growth. Also Heinz Karrer, president of Economiesuisse, the Swiss Business Federation, declared that he feared “a negative impact on Switzerland as a business location” if highly skilled workers could be recruited only in reduced numbers, as reported by Swiss Info.

Many say there will be a second referendum about the immigration quotas, with the Federal Council to ask voters whether they are ready to risk the agreements with EU to have more controls on immigration. The Swiss Government for the moment says only that the limits on work and residence would come into force in February 2017.

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