Allegations, demands, proposals and questions – a heated debate in parliament about immigration quotas has shown the impact the ballot box decision is having on political parties nearly six weeks after Swiss voters approved limiting the number of foreigners.
Some parliamentarians did not mince their words during Thursday’s televised debate from the House of Representatives.
Toni Brunner, president of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, which had championed the immigration quotas, accused the government of trying to ignore his party, of dragging its feet and shirking from taking urgent measures to push through the immigration curbs.
Some of his party colleagues slammed opponents as “hypocrites” and the government of “bootlicking in Brussels”.
But the other parties obviously did not want to miss the televised opportunity to heap criticism on the People’s Party for jeopardising the vital relations between Switzerland and the European Union.
Andy Tschümperli, senior member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party, saw the whole package of bilateral treaties at risk. “Switzerland is not an island,” he said.
More moderate statements came from members of the other parties, including the centre-right Radicals and Christian Democrats, to work with the government to find a way of implementing the controversial initiative while trying not to breach the free movement of people accord with Brussels.
“It is tantamount to squaring the circle and I don’t envy the government for having to try to do so,” said Jacques Neirynck of the Christian Democrats.
Roland Fischer of the Liberal Greens called for the 49.7% who voted against the initiative to be respected. Switzerland had a tradition for compromise, he explained.
Aftermath vote February 9
Voters approved the People’s Party initiative by 50.3% on February 9.
All other major political parties, the government, the business community and trade unions had come out against it.
The government has until 2017 to implement the immigration curbs. It promised to present a bill to parliament before the end of this year.
The initiative calls for a fundamental change in Switzerland’s immigration policy, notably the re-introduction of immigration quotas, which is incompatible with a bilateral accord between Switzerland and the EU on the free movement of people in force since 2002.
Following the outcome of the vote, the Swiss government suspended the ratification of a treaty extending the free movement of people accord to Croatia, an EU member state.
In turn, Brussels suspended talks on a bilateral electricity accord, participation in EU education and research programmes as well as film productions, pending further information from Switzerland about its future EU policy.
Catalogue of demands
The left made clear that it would not tolerate any attempts to weaken safeguards against undercutting salary levels or to discriminate against certain EU countries, notably Croatia. Nor would it tolerate the creation of a two-tier system for job permits or prioritising high-skilled immigrants over low-skilled labour.
The Social Democrats called on the government to present a report weighing the current policy of bilateral treaties with the EU against the possibility of Swiss membership in the 28-nation bloc.
The People’s Party threatened to launch another proposal to impose the initiative if the government failed to act swiftly. The decision by Swiss voters was supreme and to be put above a treaty on the free movement of people with the EU, speakers argued.
People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher blamed the majority in parliament for being bad losers incapable of accepting a verdict by the people. He also accused them and the government of trying to lead Switzerland into the EU.
The rightwingers called for a re-introduction of a tried-and-tested quota system for immigrant labour, which had been in place until 2002 for EU citizens.
However, the other parties warned this policy was incompatible with Brussels, discriminatory and too bureaucratic. They expressed concern about the EU suspending cooperation with Switzerland on education, research, film production and putting on hold talks on a bilateral electricity accord.
Wrapping up the two-and-a-half-hour debate, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said the government had been working on implementing the initiative and finding a way to solve the impasse with the EU.
However, easy solutions were not at hand, she told parliament. “There are a number of open questions and that has led to a certain insecurity.”
She called on the parties to support the government which was trying to do its task with the necessary diligence.
“Finding answers to the complex domestic and foreign policy issues will have considerable consequences for the future of our country,” she closed.