Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann has admitted he didn’t think Swiss voters would approve a national vote limiting immigration from the European Union.
“I was actually confident,” he told the Eco news programme on Swiss public television, SRF, on Monday.
“I said to myself that this affects the entire country – directly or indirectly it affects every workplace. Therefore the Swiss will consider particularly carefully whether there should be a new system or not.”
As it turned out, they thought there should. Just. On Sunday, 50.3% of the votes and a majority of cantons passed the proposal, put forward by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, known for its anti-foreigner and anti-EU agenda.
It imposes limits on the number of foreigners allowed in and may signal an end to the country’s free movement accord with the EU.
Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with Brussels on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it. This in turn could threaten other bilateral agreements with the EU.
“We simply can’t accept these kinds of restrictions, the ones that were approved yesterday,” said European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde. “This will clearly have implications for the rest of the agreements we have with Switzerland.”
Pros and cons
Schneider-Ammann dismissed accusations that, as a cabinet minister, he had kept too low a profile and hadn’t highlighted the negatives consequences of a “yes” enough.
“I was present at many events. I got involved every week. I also intentionally picked out on regions where we knew it could be close,” he said.
“We explained the pros and cons in both cases. We didn’t quite succeed – and now we have to accept this decision.”
He said he would in the coming weeks invite business leaders and social partners to discussions in order to formulate ideas to submit to the government.
“It’s in the vital interest of the country that we remove uncertainty so firms invest here, stay here and come here,” he said.
Immigration limits had been vigorously opposed by Swiss industry and the government in Bern, which is now in the uncomfortable position of having to write the referendum result into law while limiting the backlash from Brussels and big neighbours like Germany and France.
“Switzerland has rather damaged itself with this result,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters on arrival in Brussels for a meeting with his EU colleagues.
“Switzerland must realise that cherry-picking with the EU is not a long-term strategy.”
Free movement of people and jobs within its borders is one of the fundamental policies of the EU, and Switzerland, while not a member of the 28-nation bloc, has participated under a pact with Brussels.
Since 2002, Swiss and EU citizens have been able to cross the border freely and work on either side as long as they have a contract or are self-employed.
Businesses say the vote result threatens a Swiss economy that relies on the EU for nearly a fifth of workers.
Switzerland is home to food and beverage giant Nestlé, drugmakers Novartis and Roche, as well as a host of major commodities dealers such as Glencore Xtrata.
Valentin Vogt, president of the Swiss Employers Association, told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that the vote created a toxic uncertainty for Swiss business, already under pressure from a crackdown on bank secrecy and outcry over favourable tax rates some Swiss cantons offer multinationals.
“What’s the point of investing in Switzerland when in the end it’s not certain whether you can get qualified staff to carry out your plans?” he asked.
Swiss banks including UBS and Credit Suisse are especially dependent on the flow of foreign workers, employing up to 25% of staff from the EU.
Sindy Schmiegel of the Swiss Banking Association said the vote could reduce the pool of available workers for the industry making it “much more difficult” to meet staffing needs.