Quotas and questions: Swiss agree to curb immigration and rethink EU deal

by Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch
February 9, 2014 – 17:33

Voters in Switzerland have narrowly approved a rightwing proposal to curb immigration. It imposes limits on the number of foreigners allowed in and may signal an end to the country’s free movement accord with the European Union.

The initiative was approved by just 50.3% of the votes and was passed by a majority of cantons.

The move by the Swiss People’s Party – known for its anti-foreigner and anti-EU agenda – will see the reintroduction of quotas, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.

Critically, it also stipulates that Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it. This in turn could threaten other bilateral agreements with the EU.

Over the past decade, Swiss immigration rules have been phased out for European citizens. Quotas would be incompatible with the existing deal whereby EU nationals are free to work or live in Switzerland (see infobox).

Free movement of people

The agreement on the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU came into force in 2002 and is a key element of the first package of bilateral accords between the two parties. Under the deal, nationals of Switzerland and EU member states are entitled to choose their place of work and residence within the territories of the signatories.

The Swiss electorate has voted three times so far on the free movement of people. In May 2000, it approved the first bilateral package and with it the free movement accord by a large majority. In 2005 and 2009, voters approved the extension of the treaty to new EU member countries, mostly in eastern Europe.

Over the next few years voters are expected to have their say on the planned extension of the accord to the new EU member state Croatia.

In an initial reaction for the People’s Party, president Toni Brunner, said: “Regardless of the outcome of the vote, the result is a blow for the government.”

“The Swiss population knows better than the government or the administration what the problems with immigration really are. The government has to seek talks with the EU immediately and re-negotiate the free movement of people accord.”

The vote on Sunday was a neck-and-neck race showing a clear divide between the German, French and Italian-speaking parts of the country. (See graphic)

Interactive graphic

Vote results

Vote results Check the details of the three nationwide ballots on the updated graphic chart. It gives a breakdown from each of the 26 cantons and also shows the overall results.  […]

Turnout was 56.5%, one of the highest in the past decade.

GfS political scientist Claude Longchamp noted: “It is a key moment in the recent history of Switzerland. For the first time voters put their own concerns ahead of those of the economy and came against the free movement of people.”

“The overall picture is exactly like in the 1992 on the Treaty on the European Economic Area and discussions will begin on how to read the result.”

Experts had predicted many citizens would use the vote to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s policy towards the European Union.

In the run-up to the vote, backers had argued Switzerland could not cope with a further increase in the number of immigrants, including asylum seekers, putting an undue strain on the country’s welfare system, housing and traffic infrastructure.

Over the past few years the resident population of Switzerland has grown by about 77,000 people annually as a result of immigration, mainly from EU member countries.

On Sunday, Heinz Karrer, president of the Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, noted: “We have to take seriously the population’s insecurity about a perceived shortage of housing and strained infrastructure. It seems we have not have the right answers.”

Issues at stake

Voters decided on three separate issues on February 9:

Initiative by the Swiss People’s Party for the re-introduction of annual immigration caps: approved by 50.3% of votes.

Proposal by a group of conservatives to make the cost of abortions no longer refundable from the mandatory health insurance: rejected by 69.8%.

Constitutional amendment defining the financing of railway infrastructure projects: approved by 62%.

At the same time, elections and votes on a variety of issues took place at cantonal and local level.


Opponents of the immigration curbs argued that Switzerland’s economic well-being would be undermined and Brussels could cancel a series of key bilateral agreements as a result – dealing a blow to relations between the Swiss government and the 28 nation bloc.

The business community unanimously says certain sectors – including construction, healthcare and research – rely on foreign specialists.

The EU is Switzerland’s main trading partner and neighbouring Germany and Italy are the leading export markets for the Swiss industry.

Sunday’s ballot was the latest in series of more than a dozen nationwide votes on immigration and the free movement of people since 1970.

Previously the government has won all votes on the issues, but the People’s Party has boosted its backing over the past two decades. In 2010 voters approved an initiative by the political right to automatically expel foreign criminals from Switzerland.

Voters’ choice

Abortions to remain covered by health insurance

In Switzerland, 75% of abortions are carried out before the eighth week, via pills rather than surgery Swiss voters have rejected an initiative to drop abortions from basic health insurance. The vote came after conservatives launched an initiative to make the funding of abortion a “private matter”.  […]

Canada, Asia, Croatia

Senior People’s Party parliamentarians have hinted they are considering further political initiatives to restrict access to the Swiss labour market for foreigners, including the introduction of a point system to control immigration, similar to Canada.

In an effort to counter a possible shortage of labour for certain sectors of the industry and research, the People’s Party has suggested easing immigration for citizens from Asia.

Swiss voters are also likely to have the final say over the next two years on other proposals aimed at limiting immigration.

A diverse group of environmentalists and anti-immigration campaigners has collected enough signatures for a ballot aimed at curbing annual immigration to Switzerland to 0.2% of the resident population and funding birth control in developing countries.

By 2016 voters will also decide on extending the free movement of people accord to Croatia, the 28th country to join the EU on July 2013.

Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, has agreed more than 120 accords with Brussels.

As part of Switzerland’s direct democracy, agreements can be brought to a nationwide ballot by challenging a respective parliamentary decision or by launching a constitutional amendment.



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