(Bloomberg) -- The Swiss may have a trick up their sleeves for smoothing relations with their neighbors that the British don’t.
The country of 8 million at the heart of Europe will get the chance to hold a second plebiscite on European Union immigration, after a 2014 vote that jeopardizes its current arrangement with the bloc. That’s what some in the U.K. have been clamoring for in the wake of last month’s divisive referendum to abandon the EU.
A group of Swiss citizens is trying to reverse the measure that risks annulling an economically vital set of EU treaties by implementing immigration quotas. The requisite 100,000 signatures have been collected for a plan probably unique even to a country were plebiscites have been used for more than a century: never before has there been an initiative for the sole purpose of reversing an earlier one.
“It makes use of the democratic institutions available to the people,” said Andreas Auer, a former professor of law at the Universities of Zurich and Geneva who is a member of the committee that launched the measure, known as “Get Us Out of the Dead-End Street” or -- for short in German -- Rasa. “No other solution is as simple and quick.”
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Switzerland’s population mushroomed by more than 10 percent after immigration restrictions for EU citizens were progressively dropped starting in 2002. Almost a quarter of the country’s residents don’t have a Swiss passport.
In response to complaints about overcrowded public transport, a shortage of affordable housing and foreigners undercutting locals on the jobs market, the Swiss People’s Party -- the SVP -- began collecting signatures to halt what it termed “mass immigration.” The measure passed by fewer than 20,000 votes in February 2014.
Having campaigned against the initiative on the grounds it could hurt the economy, the government was forced to reverse course and has said it intends to respect the will of the electorate. It says it’s even prepared to act unilaterally if an agreement with counterparts in Brussels can’t be reached.
However, any solo steps by Switzerland would contravene agreements with the EU, covering topics ranging from civil aviation to public-sector procurement and agriculture. According to government studies, gross domestic product could be as much as 7.1 percent lower in 2035 than baseline projections if Bilateral Agreement I -- which includes the free movement of persons -- were nullified.
That has businesses worried.
“Roughly 45 percent of our employees come from abroad -- most are trained personnel from the EU,” said Andreas Zuellig, director of Swiss hotel association Hotelleriesuisse. “For us it remains important to be able to recruit workers from abroad,” he said, adding that his organization hasn’t yet formed an opinion on Rasa.
Meanwhile in Britain, a petition calling for a second referendum on EU membership, which garnered more than 4 million signatures, is set to be discussed in Parliament on Sept. 5. Yet, while Switzerland’s people power turns 100,000 signatures into a national vote, in the U.K. all it does is allow for the matter to be considered for debate among lawmakers.
On paper, the Swiss government has until February 2017 to implement the immigration vote. Negotiations with the EU have so far not borne fruit, and the Brexit vote -- which then-Prime Minister David Cameron called voluntarily -- hasn’t helped.
“Brexit means there will be no renegotiation of the free movement of persons agreement for Switzerland in the foreseeable future,” said Sean Serafin, a Rasa initiator. “The good thing for us in Switzerland is that Brexit has changed the situation completely and that may allow people to reconsider their stance.”
Forced to choose between the EU accords or the SVP’s immigration limit, a “clear majority” would favor the former, according to a survey by gfs.bern published in May. A third of those who backed the quotas in 2014 would prefer to preserve the bilateral agreements even if it meant sacrificing the restrictions on newcomers, it found.
The Swiss government also has room to maneuver when implementing referendums, as shown with a 1994 initiative to reduce trans-Alpine traffic, which didn’t stop the country from planning to construct a second road tunnel through the Gotthard. While the immigration initiative formally demands quotas for all foreigners, it doesn’t provide an actual number and some have suggested a workaround that would apply only if immigration suddenly spiked.
Still, the unorthodox Rasa initiative, which the government has until Oct. 26 to comment upon and which must be dealt with by parliament by the end of April 2018, is raising eyebrows. Michael Hermann, a political scientist who heads the Zurich-based research institute Sotomo, is one such skeptic. He points to 2001’s failed “Yes to Europe” initiative, which was launched in the wake of Switzerland’s 1992 decision not to join the European Economic Area and called for EU accession talks. Hermann argues it wound up backfiring by mobilizing anti-EU sentiment.
“Do-overs aren’t unproblematic,” he said, “One shouldn’t propose votes that aren’t necessary, David Cameron proved that. The danger with such a measure is that the initiators just wind up helping their opponent.”
--With assistance from Andre Tartar and Andrew Atkinson To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Bosley in Zurich at email@example.com. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fergal O'Brien at firstname.lastname@example.org, Zoe Schneeweiss, Jana Randow
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