The rightwing Swiss People’s Party is seeking to re-introduce annual quotas for immigration and to renegotiate a key labour accord with the European Union.
The launch of the party’s initiative, which comes less than three months ahead of October’s parliamentary elections, has prompted unanimous opposition from other political parties and the business community.
Proponents have 18 months to collect the necessary signatures to force a nationwide vote on the issue. It is the latest in a series of initiatives aimed at restricting immigration to Switzerland.
“Our initiative wants to re-claim Switzerland’s autonomy on immigration,” People’s Party President Toni Brunner told a news conference on Monday.
He says Switzerland signed away the right to a sovereign immigration policy after agreeing the free movement of people accord with Brussels in 2002.
“Unlimited immigration, including problems with illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, has a negative impact on the economy, rents, the price of land, infrastructure, schools, unemployment, health and social security,” Brunner said.
However, Brunner stressed the initiative was not aimed at stopping immigration as Switzerland’s economy needed foreign labour.
He said the initiative did not mention precise figures so as to leave the necessary flexibility for the labour market.
The initiative aims to set annual quotas for immigration, including asylum seekers, cross-border workers and family members of immigrants.
It makes immigration subject to a work permit, a willingness to integrate into Swiss society and sufficient financial means to ensure immigrants do not claim welfare benefits.
Reiterating well-known policy positions the campaigners pointed out that it was crucial for the future of the country to show the “other side of mass immigration”.
Brunner accused other parties of willfully ignoring an urgent problem.
“It is the duty of a politician to raise questions and break taboos,” Brunner said.
Attack on prosperity
The main political parties have strongly rejected the initiative as jeopardising the country’s economy in an attempt to win the attention of voters in the run-up to the October 23 parliamentary elections.
The centre-right Radical Party, traditionally close to the business community, warned the re-introduction of quotas would lead to “enormous red tape”. It said calls for a re-negotiation of the labour accord with the EU – Switzerland’s most important trading partner – were “a shot in the foot”.
The centre-left Social Democrats slammed the People’s Party saying it was unable to tackle urgent problems including salary dumping and increasing property prices as a result of the free access to the Swiss labour market for EU citizens.
It warned that the initiative would have a negative impact on Swiss expatriates. “They run the risk of massive restrictions because the EU could apply the same immigration rules,” said secretary-general Thomas Christen.
In a similar vein his counterpart from the centre-right Christian Democrats, Tim Frey, said thousands of Swiss could see their jobs in other countries threatened and many Swiss old-age pensioners abroad could face new hurdles in their countries of residence.
“The initiative shows a complete lack of inspiration,” Frey told swissinfo.ch.
The Green Party accused the People’s Party of “fomenting xenophobia” and trying to deflect attention from environmental issues.
“They want to divert attention from the discussion about an opt-out from nuclear energy and make Europe and immigration the main topic of the election campaign.”
Migration is among the main concerns of Swiss citizens. A recent opinion poll found a majority of respondents in favour of limiting immigration from the EU, over fears of overpopulation. However, a majority also agreed that the benefits of immigration were higher than the drawbacks for society.
The Swiss Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium-sized Businesses have already made it clear they will not back attempts which could lead to difficulties with the EU over free access to each other’s labour market.
However, People’s Party campaigner and businessman Thomas Matter remains confident. “Swiss companies have no interest in mass immigration. They will see our initiative in a positive light when it comes to vote,” he said.
Swiss voters have rejected three previous proposals by small far-right parties at the ballot box, including the initiative by James Schwarzenbach in 1970. A fourth attempt failed when campaigners failed to win enough signatures in 2004.
Two other initiatives aimed at limiting immigration are pending. The small far-right Swiss Democrats announced an initiative demanding that annual immigration be no higher than annual emigration from Switzerland.
An environmental group, Ecopop, wants to limit population growth to 0.2 per cent annually over a period of three years.
Foreigners currently make up about 22 per cent of the resident population in Switzerland.
People's Party initiative
The initiative calls for the re-introduction of annual immigration quotas, including for asylum seekers.
It leaves it to the government to set the figures.
The campaigners also want to renegotiate a bilateral accord with the EU granting free access to each other’s labour markets.
The initiative committee includes leading figures of the People’s Party as well as representatives of the Federal Democratic Union and the Lega dei Ticinesi group.end of infobox
Two initiatives, named after James Schwarzenbach - head of a small far-right party in the 1970s – have failed at the ballot box. (1970: 45% yes – 54% no; 1974: 34% yes – 66% no).
Another initiative by a rival far-right group – a precursor of the Swiss Democrats – was rejected by voters in 1988 with 33% yes against 67% no.
The same group launched a new initiative in 2003 but abandoned it a year later after failing to win enough signatures for a nationwide vote.
The environmental organisation, Ecopop, launched its initiative aimed at limiting population growth in May 2011.
The far-right Swiss Democrats in March 2011 announced they would launch an initiative demanding that annual immigration be no higher than annual emigration. The collection was the signatures began in July.end of infobox