Voters in Switzerland have narrowly approved a rightwing proposal to curb immigration. It imposes limits on the number of foreigners allowed in and may signal an end to the country’s free movement accord with the European Union.
The initiative was approved by just 50.3% of votes cast and was passed by a majority of cantons.
The move by the Swiss People’s Party - known for its anti-foreigner and anti-EU agenda - will see the reintroduction of quotas, as well as a national preference when filling job vacancies and restrictions of immigrants’ rights to social benefits.
Critically, it also stipulates that Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it. This in turn could threaten other bilateral agreements with the EU.
Free movement of people
The deal on the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU came into force in 2002 and is a key element of the first package of bilateral accords between the two parties. Under the deal, nationals of Switzerland and EU member states are entitled to choose their place of work and residence within the territories of the signatories.
The Swiss electorate has voted three times so far on the free movement of people. In May 2000, it approved a first bilateral package and with it the free movement accord by a large majority. In 2005 and 2009, voters approved the extension of the treaty to new EU member countries, mostly in eastern Europe. Votes are also due on the planned extension of the accord to the new EU member state Croatia.
Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga described the outcome as "a pivotal decision with far-reaching consequences". "It reflects unease about population growth in recent years," she added.
The cabinet now must submit a proposal to parliament on how to go forward. The government will also start talks with relevant EU bodies and member states in order to discuss the next steps.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter added the result would make negotiations with the EU on further bilateral accords more difficult. "But it is not a 'Black Sunday' for Switzerland. The people have decided and the government will impIement the decision for the best of the country," he said.
When it comes to quotas, the government said it would set to work "without delay". The cabinet and parliament also has three years to introduce the restrictions.
The initiative calls for quotas to apply to all foreign nationals, including cross-border commuters and asylum seekers. Businesses must also give Swiss nationals priority when hiring staff. The finer details still needed to be worked out, the government said.
Immigration caps are incompatible with the free movement of people accord whereby EU nationals are free to work or live in Switzerland, and vice versa (See infobox).
The European Commission issued a statement expressing its “regret” that the vote had passed.
“This goes against the principle of the free movement of people between the European Union and Switzerland. The Union will examine the implications of this initiative on Swiss-EU relations as a whole,” ran the statement.
In an initial reaction for the People’s Party, president Toni Brunner said "the result is a blow for the government".
"The Swiss population knows better than the government or the administration what the problems with immigration really are. The government has to seek talks with the EU immediately and re-negotiate the free movement of people accord.”
The vote on Sunday was a neck-and-neck race showing a clear divide between the different language regions of the country and between the urban and more rural population. A majority in the German- and Italian-speaking parts voted for the restrictions, while the French part came out against. (See graphic)
Turnout was 55.8%, among the highest in the past decade.
Following the announcement of the vote result on Sunday, several hundred people took the streets of Bern, Zurich, Basel and Lucerne in protest.
Political scientist Claude Longchamp of the leading GfS Bern research and polling institute noted: “It is a key moment in the recent history of Switzerland. For the first time voters put their own concerns ahead of those of the economy and came against the free movement of people.”
Experts had predicted many citizens would use the vote to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s policy towards the EU.
In the run-up to the vote, backers had argued Switzerland could not cope with a further increase in the number of immigrants, including asylum seekers, putting an undue strain on the country’s welfare system, housing and traffic infrastructure.
Over the past few years the resident population of Switzerland has grown by about 77,000 people annually as a result of immigration, mainly from EU member countries.
February 9 votes - official results
50.3% Yes 49.7% No
Private funding of abortions:
30.2% Yes 69.8% No
Railway infrastructure fund:
62% Yes 38% No
About 165,000 citizens, notably Swiss expatriates, were eligible to vote online as part of an ongoing trial with e-voting. 28,785 people, or 17.4%, cast their ballot electronically.
Opponents of the immigration curbs had argued that Switzerland’s economic well-being would be undermined and Brussels could cancel a series of key bilateral agreements as a result – dealing a blow to relations between the Swiss government and the 28 nation bloc.
The business community unanimously says certain sectors - including construction, healthcare and research - rely on foreign specialists.
The EU is Switzerland’s main trading partner and neighbouring Germany and Italy are the leading export markets for the Swiss industry.
On Sunday, Heinz Karrer, president of the Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, noted: "We have to take seriously the population's feeling of insecurity about a perceived shortage of housing and strained infrastructure. It seems we not have the right answers."
Canada, Asia, Croatia
Sunday’s ballot was the latest in series of more than a dozen nationwide votes on immigration and the free movement of people since 1970.
Previously the government has won all votes on the issues, but the People’s Party has boosted its backing over the past two decades. In 2010 voters approved an initiative by the political right to automatically expel foreign criminals from Switzerland.
Senior People’s Party parliamentarians have hinted they are considering further political initiatives to restrict access to the Swiss labour market for foreigners, including the introduction of a point system to control immigration, similar to Canada.
In an effort to counter a possible shortage of labour for certain sectors of the industry and research, the People’s Party has suggested easing immigration for citizens from Asia.
Swiss voters are also likely to have the final say over the next two years on other proposals aimed at limiting immigration.
A diverse group of environmentalists and anti-immigration campaigners has collected enough signatures for a ballot aimed at curbing annual immigration to Switzerland to 0.2% of the resident population and funding birth control in developing countries.
By 2016 voters will also decide on extending the free movement of people accord to Croatia, the 28th country to join the EU.
Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, has agreed more than 120 accords with Brussels.
As part of Switzerland’s direct democracy, agreements can be brought to a nationwide ballot by challenging a respective parliamentary decision or by launching a constitutional amendment.
By Jessica Dacey and Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch