Switzerland and immigrants – Still the black sheep?

On Sunday the Swiss public voted in a referendum to reimpose quotas on the number of people from EU countries allowed to work in Switzerland, thus making it much harder for Europeans to work in the country. The law passed with just 19,516 votes, but because of the Swiss system the quotas have to become law. Swiss politicians and business leaders are extremely disappointed, pointing to the political and economic consequences. But what will these consequences be? And what does this vote say about Switzerland?

Establish Safety – A poster by the Swiss People’s Party, supporter of the quotas

Firstly, the vote is going to cause a lot of headaches for the Swiss government. In Europe we often forget that Switzerland isn’t a member of the EU, though it has made a deal with the EU which means it’s a part of the “common market”. This “common market means four things:

  • Free movement of goods – a company can sell its goods in any country without extra tax
  • Free movement of capital – Money can go across borders at no cost
  • Free movement of services – Anyone can sell their services throughout the EU
  • Free movement of people – Any EU citizen can live or work anywhere in the EU

What Switzerland has done with this referendum is reject parts of these last two aspects. According to the treaty the Swiss have with the EU, this can now mean that all other agreements will also be ended. This means Swiss companies selling chocolate to Germany will now have to pay customs duty, and sending money to a Swiss bank account will carry costs. And this is no idle threat. The German Finance Minister said the vote would “cause a host of difficulties for Switzerland”. Swiss businesses fear losing their workers, and Swiss working in EU countries could find themselves being sent home. It’s no wonder therefore that Swiss businesses were so against the new quotas.

But if this vote will cause such problems for Switzerland, why on earth would they vote for it? Switzerland is a small mountainous country, with a national identity going back for centuries. This national identity is despite the division of the country along linguistic lines: French, German, Italian and Romansh. These divisions were also seen in the referendum, with the French speakers voting against quotas, and the Germans and Italians for. However, Switzerland also has a foreign population of 23%, the highest in Europe after Luxembourg. For the traditional Swiss, these foreigners are contributing to overcrowding, and driving Swiss salaries down.

There is also the unfortunate fact that the Swiss are known for a certain xenophobia. Years of mountain isolation has created a unique and inwards facing culture. There was outrage recently about segregation of asylum seekers to keep them away from the public (still less harsh than Australia’s policy). There has also been fairly obvious racism present in some anti-immigration advertisements by the Swiss People’s Party, the main supporter of the quotas (see photo above). This xenophobia has contributed to support for quotas on EU workers.

Finally, this vote will also boost the cause of nationalist parties across the EU, in countries like the Netherlands, the UK and France. These opponents of the EU will point to this decision as an example of what can be done about the regulations imposed by the EU. Brussels will be under increased pressure about the most basic principles of the entire European project.

While I’m a passionate supporter of the rights of immigrants, and the importance of opening borders, in the case of countries like Switzerland I can see where their reasoning is coming from. Small countries with little history of immigration will often feel at risk of being ‘swamped’, even if this fear isn’t very realistic, and sometimes even based in racism. However, Switzerland needs to realise that they can’t have it all; being in the EU means free movement of people. It will be interesting to see how the Swiss deal with the consequences of their decision.

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