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Them and us Why the ‘overforeignisation’ debate continues

Is Switzerland becoming too crowded? Some argue it is.


The Swiss fear of having too many foreigners  – overforeignisation – was at its peak in the 1960s and 1970s. But, as historian Damir Skenderovic says, two anti-immigration nationwide votes in February and November this year show that the issue has never really gone away.

Earlier this year voters approved a rightwing Swiss People’s Party initiative to “stop mass immigration” from the European Union.

On November 30, the population will be casting ballots on the Ecopop initiativeexternal link requiring that net immigration should not exceed 0.2 % of the population over a three-year average and that 10% of development aid should be spent on promoting birth control in developing countries.

Edging towards fever pitch ecopoprep


Gauging the mood of voters attending demonstrations and talks, it’s difficult to judge how the November 30 vote on limiting population growth may swing.

Even though a first opinion poll shows a large majority against the Ecopop initiative, there are fears the idea has more support than people are willing to admit openly.

It’s a warm Saturday afternoon, the public square in the capital Bern is slowly filling with people for the anti-Ecopop demonstration organised by trade unions and leftwing political parties.

“No to Ecopop” in German, French and Italian – Switzerland’s three national languages – reads a banner above the mobile stage where the warm-up act, a local rap duo, is working hard to whip up the crowd.

“Let’s make love on Parliament Square” and “This square is our dance floor” the singer quips, while a pink balloon slips from the hand of a distracted little girl. Close by and 40 minutes later, a mother sits on the pavement, breastfeeding her baby.

It’s a friendly atmosphere, and a late autumn sun shines on the several thousand demonstrators in front of the parliament building. The groups carrying their flags appear on the square with clockwork precision, some blowing their whistles or shouting into megaphones.

Campaigners take advantage of the occasion to push their other causes, whether by distributing a trade union newspaper, collecting signatures for initiatives by the political left to block a reform of the state pension plan or a second Gotthard road tunnel through the Alps.

Red cards and balloons

On stage, the speakers, trade union leaders and Social Democrats and Greens, take their turn, warning of the inhuman nature and disastrous consequences of the Ecopop initiative. They shout “red cards against the discrimination of foreign workers” and “red cards against a policy of scapegoats”.

A woman in her mid-50s with a southern German accent looks on and doesn’t hide her disappointment. She obviously expected a bigger crowd and more enthusiasm. “Are demonstrations in Switzerland always like that?” she asks.

She came to the capital from the nearby town of Biel to express her fear about a country that is about to turn its back on Europe and the world at large to become narrow-minded, as she puts it.

It’s a picture of peaceful protest – were it not for the riot police deployed. They search suspicious looking potential troublemakers who’ve neared the square. And they keep a close eye on a group of protestors, some of them masked, who later walk away to march through the streets of the old city.

Traffic is temporarily disrupted and weekend shoppers curse.

There were concerns of clashes between leftwing militants and rightwingers. At five o’clock the director of the city’s police department heaves a sigh of relief as the afternoon passes without any major incident.


The campaign for and against the Ecopop initiative has been fought with increasing intensity in the columns of the newspapers and on public billboards over the past few weeks.


Government ministers, business leaders, newspaper editorialists and even rightwing strongman Christoph Blocher all are slightly nervous, warning against strict immigration caps. It seems they don’t trust voters to reject the initiative.

Ecopop promoters are castigated as “egotists” if not “fascists”, political players trade accusations, blaming the government or the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, respectively, for a possible upset.

The potential for it is revealed in the reaction of readers’ comments in newspapers, online news sites and social media. Is there a dark force ready to vent its anger and come into the open on voting day, as the media editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper muses?

The Tages-Anzeiger and Bund dailies for their part warn the government not to underestimate public concerns about the high number of immigrants, the fear of losing jobs or unaffordable accommodations, packed commuter trains and buses.


A retired former trade unionist in Zurich makes no secret that he will vote for the Ecopop initiative. He’s waiting for a panel discussion to begin at the Kaufleuten guild hall, a popular venue for concerts, comedies and dramatic readings in the city’s banking district.

The 64-year-old with a big moustache and a smirk on his face says the government does not deserve any better. The ballot box upset on February 9, when a majority of voters approved a rightwing proposal to re-introduce immigration quotas, is “not enough”. Only to add that he hopes the initiative will be narrowly rejected after all. 

During the next two hours he freely comments on the statements by the panelists, who include Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga and local politicians.

The main audience, an estimated 500 people, a mix of old and young, men and women, some in business suits others dressed casually, appear to listen with genuine interest and they politely applaud the politicians and campaigners on both sides.

It’s Sommaruga’s sixth public appearance in the campaign and she spends much of her 20- minute speech explaining how the government plans to implement the result of the February vote.

…and a change of heart

Only then does she turn to the latest initiative, cautioning against protest votes which “would certainly not make things easier for Switzerland”.

The audience reaction is mixed. Exhausted or impatient after 90 minutes, hecklers interrupt the panelists, demanding clear answers instead of empty words.

At an informal reception following the event there seem to be more people pleased with what they heard than those who are disappointed. Some slam the TV presenter hosting the show, others hesitate to answer how it was: “So, so, nothing new but not uninteresting”.

There’s an elegant octogenarian sitting in the lobby, a glass of red wine in front of her. She really liked the evening. “It was a lively discussion and Mrs Sommaruga was very good.”

In her opinion, one of the Ecopop representatives on the panel used too many figures to explain the initiative.

Before the event, she was an Ecopop supporter. “But now I might go and vote No.”

Immigration caps

On February 9, voters approved a rightwing proposal to re-introduce immigration quotas, without setting detailed figures.

The initiative calls on the government to re-negotiate a bilateral accord on the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU.

The cabinet has until 2017 to implement the proposal, which has complicated relations with the 28-nation bloc – Switzerland’s main trading partner.

A separate initiative by the Ecopop group seeks to limit immigration to 0.2% of net population growth – effectively about 16,000 people annually – and spend 10% of the state’s development aid for family planning in developing countries.

Over the past few years, net immigration to Switzerland was about 80,000 people on average.

Switzerland has a resident population of about 8.2 million, 24% of whom are foreigners.

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Ecologists are behind the latest initiative. They have firmly rejected allegations of an overforeignisation agenda, saying their aims are contributing to a sustainable quality of life in Switzerland – stopping pressures on living areas, traffic and the environment by stemming immigration – and helping people in disadvantaged regions of the world.

Skenderovicexternal link, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Fribourg who has written on the radical rightexternal link, migration and identity politics, argues that the people’s initiative is nevertheless once again making foreigners the scapegoat. We keep hearing the word, but overforeignisation really had its high point in the 1960s and 1970s.

Damir Skenderovic: Yes, but the discussion has never really ended. Overforeignisation is a scenario, a discourse that insinuates that there is a threat, a danger, and that there should be some kind of protection. In the term “Überfremdung” [overforeignisation], there is the word “über”: too much, which possibly includes both quantitative and qualitative aspects – although it is left open for everyone to answer the question of how much.

And there is the word “fremd”: the stranger, the foreigner, who doesn’t belong here, who is supposedly a stranger to one’s own world. This is the idea that there is permanently a threat coming from outside, from the ‘other’. It also corresponds to a kind of negative perception of identity, which means that demarcation from others helps to construct one’s own identity: ‘Swissness’ is perceived as the counterpart to ‘non-Swissness’. So fear lies behind it?

D.S.: Indeed, there is fear behind it. Politics of fear intends to evoke the feeling that one has to defend oneself. It works with emotions and fantasies rather than reason and facts. Since the 1990s, politics of fear have heavily influenced a number of political campaigns and decisions in Switzerland, particularly in terms of immigration or foreign policy. Why are discussions about the concept coming up in relation to the Ecopop initiative?

D.S.: The initiative is calling for less immigration. This means first of all that two categories of people are set: the “nationals” and the “non-nationals”, the Swiss and the non-Swiss, those who have the right to stay and those who have to leave or cannot enter the country. Second, the initiative refers to issues of ecology, environment, and growth.


Swiss concept: referring to the overfilled residential areas and transport means and the resulting environmental and psychological pressures. 

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It tries to work on a feeling that some have called “Dichtestress” (density stress), a term that does not exist in English and that raises eyebrows for those who have lived in New York or Japan.

However, the initiative misses the point. Since ecology and the environment are transnational issues, they do not stop at the borders of Switzerland. So the initiative is going back to a notion of nation state which does not make sense in the area of ecology. Also, the question of growth, in terms of economy or population, is of global scale and therefore the answer cannot be given at the national level. Moreover, there are certain issues addressed, such as transport means, high rents and construction, for which someone has to take the blame. I think this is clearly scapegoat politics.

Damir Skenderovic, professor of contemporary history at the University of Fribourg 


D.S.: The debate on overpopulation, on having too many people, on ecological stress and environmental pressure, has a long history and had one of its first moments in the 1960s and 1970s. One path of the debate is linked to specific notions of nation and nationalism; overpopulation is seen within national borders, is linked to the nation-state. In this tradition – to which scientists, economists and demographers have contributed and of which this initiative is an example – overpopulation is connected to immigration, merging the notions of overforeignisation and overpopulation. Today’s Switzerland is different to the 1970s. Why is overforeignisation being debated when everything is going so well in the country?

D.S.:  In social research there are various explanations as to why someone is driven by fear in his or her political decisions or supports a political party that constantly talks about all kinds of danger and threats. For example, people feel that everything is okay now, but they fear it could all change tomorrow, producing negative effects for them. Or there is what is called “welfare chauvinism”, saying that because everything is going well, it is necessary to protect welfare, the social state and other national achievements to guarantee one’s own well-being. Thus it becomes essential to ensure that the Swiss have more rights than others.

Finally, it is known from history that parts of the middle class, even when things are going well with good jobs, a good education, and a stable family life, are afraid that it could all be worse tomorrow, that they might lose their status. So they vote for parties that promise them social status quo and national protection.

Overforeignisation timeline

1900: first appearance in a booklet launching primarily a debate among intellectuals.

Around WWI: debate taken up by larger sections of the population, also institutions which felt they needed to control immigration. In 1917 police dealing with foreigners centralised.

Post WWI: the debate increases, even if there was a strong drop in foreigners. Overforeignisation becomes an official term, appearing in laws. But still not clearly defined: is it how many people, which people, economic, cultural or political? Also links to anti-Semitism.

Post WWII: so-called guest workers arrive from southern Europe, so overforeignisation debate centres on work and economic issues, but also keeps its cultural overtone. Small political movement called National Action (now the Swiss Democrats) formed in 1961. In parallel, a federal commission looks into whether Switzerland is overforeignised.

1967: James Schwarzenbach, key figure in the debate, elected to national parliament, propelling National Action onto the national arena. Switzerland first country in Europe to have this kind of right-wing populist party.

1970: Schwarzenbach’s initiative on overforeignisation narrowly defeated at ballot box (46% yes). A controversial, mobilising moment in Swiss history. The word continued to be used in the 1970s. Several more initiatives launched in 70s and 80s, including in 1974 one on overforeignisation and overpopulation (rejected).

1990s: an established political force, the Swiss People’s Party takes over overforeignisation agenda, the word returns into circulation, having become unpopular due to its exclusionist connotations. The People’s Party remains the strongest Swiss political force today.

(Source: Damir Skenderovic)

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