Cabinet immigration move ‘is no Plan B’

Tabloid Blick played on the 'safeguard clause' term that could be used to limit immigration numbers

Swiss newspapers have roundly criticised cabinet plans for implementing immigration curbs voted on by the people in 2014. Many took up the economic minister’s earlier refrain that it was a “task tantamount to squaring the circle”.

This content was published on March 5, 2016 - 11:00

The government’s plans would see a safeguard clause introduced to curb immigration, whereby Switzerland claims the right to limit free access to the labour market due to serious economic or social problems. It also provides for annual limits set by the cabinet on the number of permits issued to people from EU and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries if immigration exceeds a certain threshold.

This 'Plan B' by the government has been drawn up after two years of hand-wringing over the implications curbs would have on Swiss-EU bilateral relations. The EU – which has yet to comment on the Swiss development - has warned that any immigration caps are incompatible with the principle of the free movement of people, one of the key principles of the 28-nation bloc.

The Tribune de Genève calls the move an “unintelligible Plan B” but admits it is unfair to reproach the cabinet for not having reached a deal yet with the EU. “Resolving our country’s European dilemma, which involves wanting to ensure the advantages of the free movement of people without taking on some of the inconveniences, is like squaring a circle”. 

The editorial continues that “it would take some courage” but voters need to be told “they made a mistake” in approving the anti-immigration measure in 2014. Without that courage, the cabinet “is getting stuck in a Plan B from which it will increasingly be difficult to extract ourselves”. “Do we really have to wait for the clash with Europe to tell the Swiss the truth?” it asks.

In an interview with Le Matin, René Schwok, a professor at Geneva’s Graduate Institute, argues it is hard to criticise the cabinet as it has very little room for manoeuvre. “It’s stuck like a pickle in a sandwich, between internal and foreign policy.”

Looming deadline

Parliament has to implement the referendum by February 9, 2017 – exactly three years after the initiative was approved by 50.3% of voters.

In a play on the safeguard clause term, the tabloid Blick ran a picture on its front page with all of the cabinet ministers wearing floppy red and white Santa Clause hats, with the damning headline, “The cabinet has come with a solution that isn’t one”. It commented: “The cabinet is respecting the deadline, but it is bringing a Plan B to parliament that no one really wants.” Parliament could delay the proposal slightly and wait to see if a solution with the EU is reached, it notes.

“Now parliamentarians can continue with their vacillating on how to square the circle,” writes the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, referring to the continuing dilemma over bilateral relations with the EU. In an editorial headlined “The world will not end on February 9”, it wrote: “Of course the inventors [of the unilateral safeguard clause] know it doesn’t work… As an interim solution it only serves as a placeholder that will be replaced later on by parliament, by the people or in the course of events on the European continent with something better, a ‘best’ solution.”

“The cabinet doesn’t have a plan,” writes the Berner Zeitung. “Not because it is completely incapable, but because it doesn’t want to come up with one. Nor does it want to admit that to the people…The upshot: the people have to choose between the bilateral accords or the initiative against mass immigration.”

The Tages-Anzeiger agrees the cabinet has come up with a vague plan. “Play for time, don’t leave yourself wide open to criticism. One can understand the considerations before the cabinet. But Switzerland’s room for manoeuvre is constantly shrinking. Parliament’s tactical acumen will be put to the test like never before in the coming months.”  

“In the long-run only there are only two ways out. The happy ending would be when the EU and Switzerland find themselves. If they don’t, the people will have to have the final word.”

What else might happen in months ahead? The Nordwestschweiz forecasts: “The initiative accepted by the people in 2014 will never come to fruition.” Friday’s plan by the cabinet is not a good solution, it said. “A political - and crucially – judicial solution would be to have the people vote on it as soon as possible.”    

Contact the author on Twitter  @jessdace

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