This is a first for Switzerland. Citizens are challenging a parliamentary decision to a nationwide vote although they are not opposed to the law in question. Their motives differ. For some it is a matter of democratic principle, while others want voters to have the final say on controversial immigration curbs.
Launching the referendum process at the end of December against a parliamentary compromise on how to implement quotas approved by voters in February 2014, Nenad Stojanović said: “This has been the most important political issue in Switzerland of the past three years.”
In December, parliament approved a revision of immigration law avoiding quotas on EU immigrants but instead prioritising Swiss jobseekers.
The decision on how to apply immigration quotas for European Union citizens poses a problem for the constitution and the legitimacy of the democratic institutions, he argued.
“Therefore citizens must have the final say.”
His tweet caused a bit of an uproar in the media and among politicians in Switzerland.
Stojanović, a political scientist at Lucerne University, is in fact anything but a supporter of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party that was behind the successful 2014 initiative to re-introduce immigration restrictions. The party has vehemently protested against parliamentary steps to implement the initiative.
There is broad acknowledgement that December’s parliamentary decision does not fully take into account the demands of the initiative accepted by voters, and therefore fails to live up to constitutional principles.
Nevertheless, most parties in parliament approved the proposed solution, which tries to do justice to the initiative while remaining compatible with EU rules.
But why would Stojanović, a member of the leftwing Social Democratic Party, want to challenge the parliamentary decision in the first place – thus breaking new ground in Switzerland as referendums are regular democratic tools to veto a decision.
Aiming to collect the necessary 50,000 signatures by April, is he trying to emulate the former British prime minister, David Cameron, or Italy’s Matteo Renzi who both called nationwide votes last year – to confirm previous parliamentary moves?
Stojanović, who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and in Italian-speaking Switzerland, resolutely dismisses the allegation.
“A plebiscite is when a president or prime minister – in other words, a political leader – decides by himself or with a group of senior politicians to launch a referendum. That is a typical top-down approach. As a rule, such a leader would be convinced to win the popular vote. My case is very different.”
Stojanović is only a grassroots member of a political party, but does not serve in an elected position following his resignation as a cantonal parliamentarian four years ago.
“This referendum is a bottom-up move. Besides, the outcome of a nationwide vote on the issue is very uncertain,” he says.
In breach of constitution
Stojanović has specific legal reasons. He says the law approved by parliament pretends to apply a constitutional amendment – the initiative aimed at curbing immigration from the EU – but in actual fact, it does not do so.
Article 121a of the Swiss constitution calls for immigration quotas, annual caps for residence permits for gainfully employed foreigners and a strict Swiss-first rule for job vacancies.
“None of these three demands are included in the law,” criticises Stojanović.
He says parliament might have acted in good faith when it opted for a watered down Swiss-first rule as it wanted to avoid a clash with Brussels over the free movement of people policy – a policy backed by Swiss voters several times since 2000.
Immigration initiative saga
Swiss voters in February 2014 narrowly approved a proposal by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party to limit immigration from the EU.
The initiative calls on the authorities to set quota for foreigners allowed on the Swiss labour market in line with the needs of the Swiss economy. It also wants the government to re-negotiate a set of bilateral treaties with the 28-nation bloc.
However, Brussels has refused any negotiations, temporarily straining relations with Switzerland, notably in the field of research and education.
In a bid to avoid an open political conflict with the EU, the Swiss parliament last December approved a watered-down law.
In October, a committee Out of the Dead End handed in enough signatures for a nationwide vote effectively cancelling the result of the 2014 initiative.
The government also seeks to present a proposal to parliament for an alternative constitutional amendment. In both cases, a date for a vote still has to be set.
But this should not be taken as an excuse not to implement the 2014 immigration vote, Stojanović argues. It is up to the people to decide whether they want to accept the law, which is not compatible with the constitution but has been adopted by parliament.
Stojanović has won the support of three separate citizens’ committees in the meantime.
“It was shocking to see how far parliament was willing to go,” says Jean-Marc Heim, a spokesman for the committee ‘No to the violation of the constitution’.
He represents a group of up to six people who spontaneously decided to launch a referendum because they are concerned about direct democratic principles, giving citizens a say in political decisions. They hope to trigger a “mass reaction”, as Heim says.
For his part, Stojanović is “cautiously optimistic” about the success of the campaign, having received numerous requests for sheets to collect signatures.
Another committee campaigning for “truly liberal, social values and the rule of law” has also become active. The Civic Movement Switzerland group is primarily trying to win the necessary backing from citizens through a social media campaign. It claims to have 700 members.
Additional support also comes from a lapsed Swiss People’s party member who leads a conservative group campaigning for a militia-style Swiss army and is, like the small Swiss Democrats party, against the law approved by parliament.
No support for the referendum can be expected from any of the major political parties which all have criticised Stojanović.
This might make sense in the case of all those who came out in support of the law in December. But it makes observers wonder why the People’s Party, outspoken opponent of the law, has officially denounced the referendum as a “cheat” and a tactical trap. The party argued there was no guarantee that the government would be prepared to accept and implement a possible rejection of the law by voters.
Instead, the People’s Party and a like-minded conservative pressure group have announced that they will consider launching a new initiative aimed at cancelling a key bilateral treaty with the EU on the free movement of people. A decision is not expected before June.
How easy is it to follow the different political moves to break the impasse with the EU over the immigration curbs? Tell us what you think.
Adapted from Italian by Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch