February 2017 is looming large as a deadline for Switzerland to implement immigration quotas approved by voters back in 2014. Parliamentarians will try to hash out a deal in the coming weeks.
Never before has Switzerland’s system of direct democracy presented such a dilemma. Since 2014, politicians have tried to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: how to limit the number of EU workers entering Switzerland without breaching the free movement of people accord with the 28-country bloc. Officials in Brussels have said the agreement cannot be renegotiated.
How did we get here?
On February 9, 2014, a narrow 0.7% majority of voters approved a rightwing Swiss People’s Party initiative against mass immigration which specified that Switzerland should “autonomously manage the immigration of foreigners” by reintroducing “ceilings and annual quotas”.
From the moment the initiative was launched, it was clear that it violated Switzerland’s free movement agreement with the EU. Switzerland, however, does not have a constitutional court or a federal supervisory mechanism for assessing initiatives. While the left and economic circles warned of the clash, it was played down, and even refuted, by the People’s Party.
Why the February 2017 deadline?
Initiatives approved by voters require a change to the constitution. But in order for this amendment to take effect, it must be translated into law. This can take time. Maternity insurance, for instance, was enshrined in the constitution in 1945 but only became a reality in 2004. Another extreme example is the Alpine Initiative, which calls for alpine transport to transition from road to rail. Accepted in 1994, environmentalists are still waiting for it to be implemented, 24 years on.
The People’s Party isn’t that patient. Its initiative (now Article 121a of the constitution) explicitly requires a modification of the law on foreigners within three years. If this isn’t done, the cabinet must enforce legal steps to implement it.
After two years and nine months, where are we now?
More or less at a standstill. For the EU, the free movement of people across borders is just as non-negotiable as it was in the past. And Brussels, which now has to contend with Brexit, has other things on its mind.
Free movement was among the first set of accords governing Swiss-EU relations. These accords contain a “guillotine” clause that nullifies all if one is eliminated. Although no one believes such a catastrophic scenario will actually happen, Switzerland must nevertheless find a compromise between free movement and quotas. In other words, fit a square peg to a round hole.
Six laws in all
In fact, when we talk about a review of the law, it’s really "laws". If it largely relates to legislation of foreigners, the current version of the draft would also involve changes to five other laws, such as asylum, labour and unemployment.
How will parliament tackle this?
In September, the House of Representatives narrowly accepted (98 votes against 93) a so-called "light” national preference solution. It says Switzerland must do everything it can to tap the local labour force, like advertising jobs at regional job centres, before recruiting outside Switzerland. If these actions are insufficient, the government can resort to more restrictive measures, but without quotas.
While businesses welcomed this EU-compatible solution, the People’s Party was quick to denounce it as a betrayal of the will of the people. At the start of November, the party shot down a solution advocated by the Senate commission. This stricter version of the national preference plan would oblige companies to interview unemployed Swiss residents and explain any decision not to hire them in writing. The proposal, widely criticised as being an administrative nightmare, will be discussed by the Senate this week.
Possible scenarios and multiple unknowns...
The February 2017 deadline isn’t met
Unless the Senate completely overlook their commission’s recommendations, there will be differences between the Senate and House of Representatives proposals. Which means lots of shuffling back and forth between the houses as the text is ironed out. This is how it works in a bicameral legislative system: a bill only passes when both houses agree on it word-for-word. The next session is scheduled to take place from February 27 to March 17. That’s after the deadline but maybe there’s no need to panic: in August 2015, Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter said it would be better to have a good solution than to adhere strictly to a deadline.
But will parliament’s solution be good enough for Brussels? That’s unknown. On October 25, a special meeting of the Swiss-EU Joint Committee saw some member states express fear there would be discrimination against their own nationals, even in the case of a "light" national preference scenario.
The People’s Party will not back down
What is certain is that the People’s Party will oppose any solution that does not respect Article 121a to the letter. The party has not yet said if it will attack the revised law with a referendum attempt, but it has already voiced a far more radical threat: an initiative against free movement.
When’s the earliest that quotas would start?
Once the quotas package is agreed, nothing can be done for 100 days. If there’s a follow-up referendum, it will not go before voters until September or November 2017 as earlier vote subjects are already fixed. The implementation order would then still need to be amended. The cabinet would fix the date when it would enter into force. In the most pessimistic scenario (or optimistic, depending on which side you are on), quotas would not be rolled out until 2018.
Could anything else get in the way?
Even before the current soap opera plays out, a new off-shoot will invade our screens as early as spring 2017, pitting the “Out of the dead end” initiative against a government-backed alternative – both on the subject of implementing the immigration vote.
The first episodes have already been aired: in December 2014, a group of intellectuals began collecting signatures for a popular initiative entitled "Let’s get out of the impasse! Let’s renounce the re-establishment of immigration quotas”. The initiative text itself is shorter than its title. There’s just one sentence: "Article 121a is repealed". By October 2015, enough signatures were gathered and the initiative was validated
A year later, the cabinet responded, recommending its rejection but with plans to come up with a direct counterproposal. What might this government proposal be? We won’t know until April. It will be put to a vote on the same day as the “Out of the dead end” initiative.
So where will we be next year this time?
There will be no vote on the issue until September 2017. There are a range of possibilities from then on. The only certainty is that we are going to keep discussing this. At the end of the day, at least one scenario (a ‘yes’ vote to the “Out of the dead end” initiative) could potentially throw three years’ of administration, diplomacy and parliamentary work out the window.
A new law, and fast!
The practice of setting a deadline for implementation of a vote is almost as old as the popular initiative itself. Of the 22 that have been accepted since 1893 (of 208 subjected to voting), a third set out deadlines.
When it was a matter of banning absinthe in 1908 or declaring August 1 as National Day in 1994, the work of legislators was relatively simple. A much more complicated case of limiting the number of second homes (the so-called Lex Weber initiative accepted in 2012) was however translated into federal and cantonal laws within the two-year deadline. The Alpine Initiative (1994), on the other hand, set a ten-year deadline and still has not been implemented.
Translated from French by Jessica Dacey, swissinfo.ch