A leading politician behind Switzerland’s recent anti-immigration vote has dismissed fears that quotas are already undermining the position of Swiss businesses in international competition and negatively impacting economic growth.
In a syndicated interview in Friday’s Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund newspapers Swiss People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher said conditions for businesses in Switzerland have remained stable following Sunday’s shock decision by voters to curb immigration and re-impose quotas for workers from the European Union – Switzerland’s main trading partner.
“Fundamentally nothing has changed,” he said. Warnings about shrinking growth were “nonsense”, he added.
“Did our Gross National Product decrease before 2007 when the free movement of people came into force?”
He slammed employers who have complained about the uncertainties it poses for business.
“We bloody well work in an environment of uncertainty every day,” he said.
He added the growth of the Swiss economy did not depend primarily on the free movement of people accord, which gives EU citizens access to the Swiss labour market.
Pierre Veya, editor-in-chief Le Temps
Christoph Blocher insults the minority, not because they voted against the initiative but because he calls into question their loyalty to the country.
Blocher is a leading figure of the rightwing People’s Party, which is known for its anti-foreigner and anti-EU agenda. The former justice minister and multi-millionaire businessman still represents his party in parliament.
He said he was surprised by Brussels’ “mild reaction” to Sunday’s result and reiterated a previous comment that voters who rejected the controversial initiative were less in touch with Switzerland.
His comment about a lack of patriotism has prompted harsh reactions notably in the French-speaking part of the country – and in urban areas - where a majority of voters had come out against the People’s Party initiative.
Politicians and the main newspaper editorials, notably in the Lake Geneva region, accused Blocher of going too far and playing a dangerous game, undermining Switzerland’s credibility abroad.
“Christoph Blocher insults the minority, not because they voted against the initiative but because he calls into question their loyalty to the country,” the editor-in-chief of the Le Temps said.
Switzerland's main cities have called on the government to consider the interests of the urban population when preparing implementation of immigration curbs.
In a letter to the cabinet, the mayors of the top ten cities in the German- and French-speaking parts of the country stressed the importance of foreign labour for the prosperity of the country, for research and education as well as in the health sector.
No mayor in Italian-speaking Ticino signed the letter.
A majority in urban centres voted against the immigration restrictions last Sunday, except in Ticino.
On Friday, Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said the vote result posed a number of challenges.
“For the economy we have to do everything possible to maintain the excellent conditions in our country. Above all we have to make sure that there is no uncertainty for investors,” he said in a speech at the opening of Basel’s annual trade fair.
It was important that firms continue to invest and create jobs in Switzerland, he noted.
Earlier in the week he told Germany’s prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, “one of my worries is that Switzerland might lose its attractiveness for foreign companies”.
He said companies needed political stability and the current uncertainty made them hesitant.
Nevertheless, Schneider-Ammann, a former businessman, is optimistic, despite the surprising vote outcome.
“Now we need pragmatic solutions. I’m sure we will find them. A few months from now I will be able to reassure my counterparts of the advantages of Switzerland as a business location.”
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.
Several chief executives of Swiss-based multinationals have since spoken up about the possible impact of the vote on their businesses.
Paul Bulcke, CEO of the food giant Nestlé told the Swiss business magazine Bilan it would be wise to dispel the current uncertainty as quickly as possible.
Ulrich Spiesshofer of the Swiss-Swedish engineering giant ABB said it would be worrying if Switzerland were to move away from its liberal economic environment. “It’s important that Switzerland keeps that value proposition. We hope it won’t change,” he says in the Financial Times.
Meanwhile Swatch Group CEO Nick Hayek described the outcome as a show of force and independence.
He said the proposed quotas on foreigners were not a major problem for his watchmaking companies, which often employ cross-border workers from neighbouring France.
“We will cope! Voters did not decide to reduce the quotas, but to limit economic growth – and that’s not the same thing,” he told the Le Matin daily.