Switzerland out in the cold after EU immigration vote

Feb 10, 2014

'All eyes will be on the reaction from Brussels' as Switzerland votes to limit immigration from the EU

AFP/Getty Images

SWITZERLAND has voted to limit immigration from the European Union in a move that is likely to provoke tensions with Brussels.

Against expectations, the referendum to curb the annual intake of workers from the EU was narrowly backed by 50.3 per cent of voters, after a campaign mounted by the populist right-wing UDC (Democratic Union of Centre) party. A mere 30,000 people contributed to the referendum's success. Support for the move was said to be strongest in the German- and Italian-speaking parts of the country, as well as rural areas.

The vote was greeted with disapproval from the EU. The European Commission swiftly issued a statement saying it regretted that an "initiative for the introduction of quantitative limits to immigration has been passed by this vote".

The Commission spokesman said: "This goes against the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland. The EU will examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole. In this context, the Federal Council's position on the result will also be taken into account."

The vote puts the European Union in a difficult situation, says the BBC's Europe editor Gavin Hewitt. "For Brussels there are no easy options," he explains. "Free movement of people is one of its core principles. It sees it as integral to the single market. It has reminded the UK of this and if it embraces a compromise with the Swiss, other countries might chose to follow.

"And yet European officials will also be aware that with the European elections pending in May, there will be many anti-establishment parties pushing for the same restrictions as the Swiss voted for. Brussels will believe it has to defend a core principle, yet it will also be aware of how strongly the immigration issue plays with voters," Hewitt said.

Jan Atteslander of the Swiss Business Federation, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle that contrary to the wishes of voters, the Swiss economy needs immigrants. "A healthy economy creates jobs. If you cannot fill them with domestic people, there is a need for foreigners," he says. "And globalized, well-integrated economies need highly qualified people – specialists. There's a shortage of them worldwide."

Analysts have said that the result may have a knock-on effect in Britain, with David Cameron hoping to set similar limits on arrivals from the EU. However the Guardian's Europe editor Ian Traynor notes that "the situations are different: Switzerland is not in the EU but in Schengen [a treat that abolished European border controls], while Britain is an EU member but not part of the Schengen system. However, freedom of movement for EU citizens is a central pillar of the EU's single market and applies both to the union and to the Schengen countries."

Many of the details of the quotas are yet to be fully worked out but as the restrictions are put in place "all eyes will be on the reaction from Brussels," the BBC said.

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...and yet, already, Brussels is uttering dark threats at Switzerland - ominous mutterings of "trade" restrictions etc.

Just WHAT is it with Brussels? - this is a democratically -arrived - at referendum result, achieved by a sovereign nation - Switzerland - yet Brussels is refusing to accept that outcome.

If there were to be another vote on this issue, in Switzerland, and if the result of that second vote went the other way then, of course, Brussels would be happy with that outcome.

We have a classic case of an un-elected (rapidly becoming self-elected) body, Brussels, dictating to a democratically elected government and making threats in so doing.


This outcome proves another fact: Switzerland is an utterly divided country. Half of the population is against immigration, the other half is not. Not really a clear voice, is it? But be reassured: in the end, as soon as the Swiss realize that an immigration stop will harm national economy and finance, they will find a cunning way to evade the populist result of this referendum. The Swiss have always been quite pragmatic in their foreign relations, no matter the moral standards of their interlocutor. Remember their tolerant attitude towards depositing international crime money? Furthermore, Brussels is the capital of Belgium. As such it has nothing to do with the EU-policies, except that it happens to harbour the EU-headquarter, in combination with Strasbourg, France. You can well criticize the European Union, but it’s quite useless and even misleading to blame ‘Brussels’ or any other city. Intellectual simplification can have dangerous consequences as anyone who is aware of history should know.

So true Chris,Brussels is totally out of touch and completely un-democratic,the EU has become a totalitarian state run by unelected commissioners.

I hope the UK get the same chance to vote on this!
A Big Englander!

...William - you are correct, of course. However, despite the fact that Brussels is a national capital city, the term, "Brussels", embodies the concept of the over-bearing might of the unelected body that is "Europe".

The fact that the Swiss are "pragmatic" (or, even, cynical?) in their foreign relations does not invalidate the democratic outcome of this referendum.

They should be free to make their own mistakes without threats or interference from "Brussels". That is democracy in action.

My answer was already given, Chris: referenda may give the result of valid democratic decision making, but are not automatically a guarantee for good policy. For instance, suppose that in September (against the odds of today) a majority of Scots want to get out of the UK, will this be a wise decision for the future welfare of the Scottish population? Unless the perspective is based on sound facts and figures, I wouldn’t run the risk. Policies based on emotional rather than rational arguments are seldom wise. I do believe in democracy, but not as an absolute dogma. Politics means well-considered guidance and responsibility, not surrender to the populist vote. Besides, my sympathy is with the Scots, whatever they decide. But that doesn’t prevent me from careful thinking about the pro’s and contra’s. Finally (I know, this is a bit unfair): democracy resulted in Hitler's reign. A mistake that could have been avoided with a little less democracy.

...absolutely erudite and well-reasoned reply, William. By the by - if the Scottish referendum were to be regarded as truly democratic, why cannot "exiled" Scots have the same voting rights as those Scots resident in Scotland?

I have many resident, and non-resident, Scottish friends - this anomaly is a conundrum to most of them. I would surmise that this arrangement is a machination designed to achieve a political outcome, rather than to reflect a true national opinion?

Chris, your guess is as good as mine. There are 800,000 non-resident Scots who don’t have a voice in this referendum. Quite probable that the preparing discussions that have led to the decision to hold the referendum resulted in a political compromise. The fact that 400,000 resident non-Scots are allowed to participate, seems to confirm this supposition. A rather bizarre logic, I think, but politics is about power and how to get it by weakening your adversary. So in the end, you are right on that, the outcome will not be the undisputed reflection of a complete national opinion, but a more or less calculated result of a give and take-game.

Anyway, here in Belgium, there is quite some attention for the Scottish referendum. Not surprisingly: since decades there is a growing minority of Flemish politicians that want independence for Flanders. A lot of them have a rather harsh view: Flanders is (said to be) richer than Wallonia, so they bluntly argue that the Flemish must get rid of their poorer compatriots in order to keep their wealth as much as possible to themselves. A cold-hearted, even short sighted logic that is not mine. In the long run it is stupid, because Wallonia has a much younger population. Who is going to support the elderly Belgian pensioners within a couple of decades? My conclusion once again: think before you act. And beware of simple solutions for complex problems.

By the way, my friends and I have frequently hiked throughout Scotland and Wales in the past twenty years. By the end of September we will be (again) in the Cairngorms, for another week of hiking. The referendum will not change our love and respect for Scottish nature, culture and hospitality.

Hello again William - yes - it seems that we, in Britain, are not the only ones to be ill-served by our politicians. However, emotions very often transcend logic. In the UK (and especially in England) we are very angry with our political classes, and that anger has manifested itself in the massive protest vote for UKIP.

David Cameron becomes ever more tiresome and predictable whenever he utters one of his "pledges"; he fatally holed his boat when he reneged on his "cast iron" guarantee of a referendum on EU membership, shortly after gaining office. To my - yes - simple, logic he would have been much better advised to have held that promised referendum, regardless of Gordon Brown's shabby and cynical last minute signing of the Lisbon Treaty.

By so doing Cameron would be now armed with the clear views of this country, via that referendum result or he would have been able to put the matter behind him once and for all and, thereafter, get on with running the country without the constant back-seat driving from his own Euro-sceptic backbenchers and UKIP.

His failure to hold that referendum has shown him to be mendacious, untrustworthy and obdurate; regardless of any potential outcome - he will never recover from that grave error of judgement and neither does he deserve to. UKIP were given an enormous boost in popularity and raison d'etre as a result.

I too, love Scotland - one of my favourite destinations is the Isle of Mull - 50 years behind the times in many places and full of wild life - eagles, otters, deer, seals, Minke whales etc.

Good luck!

I don't think your grasp the euphimism of 'Brussels' as a word which encapsulates the notion of 'EU leadership. Much like the term 'Washington' or 'Moscow'.

Also - the Swiss were right to vote down immigration, and it will be better for them.

It's going to be a big win for Swiss citizens who are overwhelmed with immigration.

Don't worry, I do know that 'Brussels' is a euphemism in this context, but I prefer
discussions to be held in clear and unambiguous language. So, the EU is the EU and Brussels is a city and the capital of Belgium. Now, about the Swiss
referendum: future will show whether the Swiss are right or not in this matter,
but all I wanted to emphasize is that Switzerland will adapt their policy if the backfire of the decision will prove to be disadvantageous for the economy. I am not a great fan of national referenda on topics that are far too complex to be answered with a simple yes or no. It gives populist one issue-parties a legitimation they impossibly can handle.