Hamburgers, street art and the free movement of people accord with the European Union make an unusual mix. But the Swiss Business Federation (economiesuisse) is certain it’s a winning recipe. Their food truck tour promoting the importance of the bilateral accords with the EU ended in Lausanne on Thursday.
As the meat sizzles on the grill, around the square members of the lobby group and local entrepreneurs try to engage with the public on what they see as the big upcoming battle: Europe and the bilateral accords.
Two years after a controversial anti-immigration vote narrowly passed – on February 9, 2014, 50.3% of Swiss agreed to imposing quotas on EU citizens – the federation is taking to the streets ahead of a possible vote in 2017 on Switzerland’s bilateral relations with the 28-nation bloc, immigration and the free movement accord.
Criticised for campaigning too late against the 2014 mass immigration vote, the lobby group organised the food truck tour - Geneva, Neuchâtel, Sion and Lausanne - to get a head start and test pro- or anti-EU sentiment, while offering positive messages.
“The aim is not to simply remind people that one out of every two Swiss francs is earned in Europe, but to make sure people understand that our bilateral relations with the EU are extremely important and to listen to the population to clarify any questions,” explained Patrick Odier, vice president of economiesuisse.
But the dozen officials, businessmen and politicians present in Lausanne admit it is not an easy exercise.
“In Geneva, Neuchâtel and Sion people expressed fears about employment, both for themselves and for their children. They have the feeling that they are always competing with very qualified citizens from Europe or outside Europe,” said Cristina Gaggini, the business lobby group’s director for French-speaking Switzerland.
In the Lake Geneva region the issue of packed trains is often talked about, she added.
Chewing the fat in Lausanne
In Lausanne the offer of a free classic Swiss-made burger cooked by Luca Arzenton in his converted green Citroen van, and live street art by Franck Bouroullec, certainly pulled in the crowds. But not many people were eager to chew the fat about Europe afterwards.
Carlo, an Italian, who has lived for almost 40 years in Switzerland, felt the Swiss had to keep an open attitude to Europe.
“The Swiss like to maintain their little paradise. But they can't just think of themselves,” he said. “Of course issues like cross-border workers are hot topics, especially in Geneva. But we have to remain open towards Europe through dialogue.”
Waiting patiently for his burger, Raphael Dugon was more critical of the negative consequences of more and more people coming to Switzerland to work and settle.
“In my opinion we don’t have an employment, housing, mobility, security or infrastructure problem but an immigration problem. This country can’t welcome so many people given its size and the resources available,” he declared.
“Perhaps for Swiss bankers things will work out, or for bosses, but the situation just seems to get worse for the average citizen.”
He went on to recount his own personal problems, which he felt were linked to immigration.
“It’s hard to find an accommodation. Next year, I have to move but I don’t know where to. I’ve been unemployed just under a year. I could make a long list of other people who have similar problems. But many people don’t talk about it, as they have got used to the situation,” he said.
Less support for quotas
Despite such personal accounts, several recent surveys point to a general warming towards the bilateral path. A poll by the leading GfS Bern research and polling institute on May 22 found that support for re-introducing immigration quotas for EU citizens had dropped to 36%, down 3% from February.
A growing number of respondents said stable relations with the 28-nation bloc was important for the Swiss economy. Just over 60% of the participants in the poll also said they wanted the immigration curbs, approved by Swiss voters in 2014, to be implemented without jeopardizing the bilateral treaties with the EU.
For Odier, the polls show that economic arguments are starting to bear fruit.
“Over 50% of our exports are destined to the 500 million European citizens and we are the third biggest market for Europe; 1.3 million Europeans live in Switzerland and 300,000 cross-border workers come here to work. Neither Switzerland nor Europe has any interest in breaking this relationship,” he said.
Models conducted by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) estimate that terminating the first group of bilateral accords with the EU – known as Bilaterals I - would weigh down Switzerland’s gross domestic product (GDP) by between CHF460 billion ($480 million) and CHF630 billion over the next 20 years.
But isolationists, led by the conservative right Swiss People’s Party which was behind the immigration initiative, argue the country will be no worse off without the accords.
“Switzerland will not fall apart without these so-called bilateral agreements,” argued People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher recently on his private television channel,
Politicians from all parties, with the exception of the People’s Party, joined local entrepreneurs on the food truck venture that went under the slogan “For an open and sovereign Switzerland”.
On February 9, 2014, voters in Switzerland narrowly approved a right-wing proposal to curb immigration (50.3% in favour). It imposes limits on the number of foreigners allowed in through the reintroduction of quotas, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.
Switzerland is currently two-thirds of the way through a three-year timetable to enforce the binding 2014 referendum vote in favour of immigration quotas, which would violate a bilateral pact guaranteeing freedom of movement for EU workers.
The government has presented a blueprint to go it alone on immigration controls in line with the referendum, but stresses that a mutual agreement with the EU is by far the preferred option.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU but it has concluded 20 major bilateral agreements with the 28-nation bloc, which include the free movement of persons accord, and another 100 secondary accords.