Government re-launches campaign against immigration curbs

Justice Minister Keller-Sutter (centre) flanked by representatives of the trade unions and the employers organisations defending the free movement deal with the EU. Keystone / Peter Schneider

Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter has warned of the damage of an initiative to scrap a free movement of people accord with the European Union.

Re-launching the government’s campaign ahead of a nationwide vote on September 27, Keller-Sutter said approval of the right-wing initiative would seriously undermine relations with Switzerland’s main trading partner.

“It is not the time for political experiments, certainly not now. Our economy needs a clear perspective to be able to recover from the coronavirus crisis,” Keller-Sutter told a news conference on Monday.

The People’s Party argues the free movement deal, allowing workers from the EU access to the Swiss labour market, leads to lower salaries and unemployment.

The vote was initially scheduled for May but had to be rescheduled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions on daily life in Switzerland.

Employers and unions

Keller-Sutter presented the government’s position alongside representatives of the main trade union umbrella organisations and employers’ associations.

She repeatedly stressed the cooperation of employers and unions with the government and the joint efforts to protect the domestic workforce, notably those above the age of 60, against unfair competition.

“We need certain social measures in a direct democracy to maintain the system of free trade,” she said.

Hans-Ulrich Bigler, director of the Association of Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises, warned of a lack of skilled workers if the initiative is accepted by voters. “It would destroy jobs and threaten the foundation of the Swiss economy,” he said.

Pierre-Yves Maillard, president of the Trade Union Federation, accused the People’s Party of targeting a series of measures that seek to protect workers’ rights and salary levels.

Adrian Wüthrich of Travail Suisse added that approval of the initiative would worsen the economic crisis. He called for a clear legal basis to prevent uncertainty.

For his part, Valentin Vogt of the Swiss Employers Federation argued that immigration restrictions would lead to a “worst case scenario for the country”.

Go-it alone

People’s Party parliamentarian Céline Amaudruz dismissed the arguments as false.

“For more than 20 or 30 years, our opponents keep repeating the same story that Switzerland could not exist without the help of the EU,” she told Swiss public television RTS.

She said Switzerland was much better on its own and that the trade balance with the 27-nation bloc was becoming more negative.

The People’s Party and the conservative Group for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland handed in enough signatures nearly two years ago for a nationwide ballot on immigration curbs.

Many right-wing critics were disappointed by parliament’s perceived slow implementation of a previous initiative to cap immigration from EU member countries in 2014.

“We respect the people’s will,” Amaudruz said and referring to growing unemployment she added: “Our priority is to put the Swiss population first.”

The People’s Party argues Switzerland should be able to regulate immigration on its own and deal with the risks of the EU cancelling a series of bilateral treaties negotiated 20 years ago on labour, transport, trade, science and agriculture.

Most political parties, the 26 cantons and parliament have recommended that the initiative be rejected in September – in what has been dubbed as one of the key votes for Switzerland in the near future.

The People’s Party says it has launched its campaign to win support for its initiative at the beginning of this year, but it declined to give further information about planned events.

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