The upcoming Ecopop initiative, which seeks a strict cap on immigration for green reasons, is not accepted by many in business and politics. Hans Geiger, an economics expert and member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, is an exception. He explains why.
Launched by the Ecopop Association- a previously little-known environmental group -the initiative, which comes to vote on November 30, wants to limit net immigration to 0.2% of population growth. It also calls for 10% of the government’s development aid to go towards family planning in developing countries. The aim is to reduce Switzerland’s ecological footprint.
There is not much support for it in business and politics. Even Geiger’s own party, the People’s Party, which prides itself on its migration policies, opposes the text. But Geiger, a former banking professor, has been appearing at party conventions to promote the initiative, helping it find approval among grassroots members.
The Ecopop initiative, Geiger tells swissinfo.ch, is much clearer than the controversial initiative “against mass immigration” to re-introduce European Union immigration quotas that was narrowly backed by the population in February.
swissinfo.ch: Why do you support the Ecopop initiative? Is it immigration that troubles you or the environmental strain?
Hans Geiger: It’s not only about green issues. An annual net immigration of some 100,000 people is not sustainable, both in terms of consumption of resources, as well as impact on society.
swissinfo.ch: Are you saying that Switzerland is overrun with foreigners?
H.G.: On a purely quantitative basis, Switzerland has a much bigger immigration problem than its neighbours. On a qualitative level, we have resolved this much better than other countries with only a fraction of our immigration rates. But it can’t continue like this forever. It keeps getting more and more cramped.
All of the traditional migration countries – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States – have immigration policies. Switzerland needs to put a curb on immigration - that is, a quantitative limit.
swissinfo.ch: History shows that immigrants flock to places where there is greater prosperity and a higher quality of life.
H.G.: That’s true, but it’s not unrestrained. It’s also not in the interest of the countries from which people emigrate. If doctors and nurses move here because they can earn more, they are missed in their country of origin, which has funded their costly education. This is opportunistic and unfair, especially when it is the elite that leaves.
swissinfo.ch: Ecopop initiative supporters claim that immigration harms the quality of life in Switzerland. You’ve just given an example of how Switzerland benefits from immigration.
H.G.: We have had the complete free movement of people with the European Union since 2007. Since then, prosperity has declined, both for the Swiss and the foreigners who lived here before its implementation. The per capita economic performance has stagnated since 2007. Prior to that, it had steadily increased.
swissinfo.ch: That could be the opinion of a union member.
H.G.: Yes, what I just said should come from a union member. I don’t understand why they are on the other side of this issue.
swissinfo.ch: Most economic experts warn about the dangerous repercussions stemming from this initiative. You are one of the few who is publicly supporting this initiative.
H.G.: If I were an entrepreneur, I would want to employ competent and affordable people in the easiest possible manner, and not have to concern myself with national security, unity, or the environment.
swissinfo.ch: If only a net total of 16,000 people can migrate to Switzerland each year, as permitted under this initiative, then the economy will not have enough qualified workers at its disposal.
H.G.: I can’t follow this argument. The reduction to a net immigration of 16,000 means that 91,000 people can immigrate as about 75,000 people leave Switzerland each year.
swissinfo.ch: The Swiss government and most political parties agree if this initiative passes, it would mark the end of bilateral relations with the EU. Are you willing to accept the consequences?
H.G.: The government has really stood out with this stupid assertion. In the worst-case scenario, the treaty for the free movement of people would have to be terminated. But the EU would never ever annul the six other treaties. The EU didn’t negotiate these treaties just as a favour to Switzerland, but because it’s also in their own interest.
swissinfo.ch: Even the People’s Party, of which you are a member, has spoken out against this initiative.
H.G.: My own party wants to enjoy the fruits of their own labour: the initiative “against mass immigration”. But the Ecopop initiative is much clearer. You can’t dilute it as easily, which is what’s currently happening to the People’s Party’s initiative.
swissinfo.ch: The backers of the Ecopop initiative claim that, above all, it’s about the environment, increasingly under pressure through immigration. But environmental problems don’t stop at national borders. What difference does it make if foreigners use resources in their countries of origin or here in Switzerland?
H.G.: As [19th century Swiss writer Jeremias] Gotthelf once said: “at home must begin what is to shine bright in our homeland”. It’s up to each country to find what works best for it.
swissinfo.ch: But isn’t it a bit easy to stop immigrants from participating in our prosperity rather than questioning our own lifestyle?
H.G.: We are not stopping people in other countries from doing that, quite the opposite. The second part of the initiative seeks to reduce population growth by requiring 10% of development aid to be used for family planning. Efforts to increase prosperity in poor countries will only succeed when the population stops growing.
swissinfo.ch: Aid agencies say that family planning only works by increasing the level of education and emancipating women and not by distributing condoms.
H.G.: It’s true that the biggest problem in these countries is the position of women. But voluntary family planning doesn’t just mean distributing condoms, but explanations, medical support, etc.
The initiative “Stop overpopulation – safeguard our natural environment” put forward by the Ecopop Association will be voted on November 30. The initiative calls for annual net immigration – the number of immigrants minus those who emigrate – to be capped at 0.2 per cent of the permanent population, or some 16,000 people each year. In 2013, the population increased by around 110,000 people.
All of the main political parties, trade associations and labour unions have recommended that voters reject the initiative. It is supported by the pressure group, Action for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland (AUNS). The initiative doesn’t appear to be finding much support among voters for now. According to the first survey by the gfs.bern research institute, on behalf of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation - swissinfo.ch’s parent company - only 35% would vote yes if they had gone to the polls on October 24.
(Translated from German by Catherine McLean), swissinfo.ch