An upsurge in the number of people moving to Switzerland in 2011 has prompted calls for the implementation of the “safeguard clause” written into accords with the EU.
The clause, included in the accord on the free movement of people which enables Swiss and EU citizens to work freely in each other’s countries, can be invoked if the number of people arriving in any one year is more than ten per cent up on the average for the previous three.
One group that rose by more than ten per cent in 2011 was the so-called EU-8 countries that joined the European Union in 2004 – the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Since May last year, they have benefited from the same free movement accord with Switzerland as other EU states other than Bulgaria and Romania, which joined later.
However, in real numbers, the new arrivals amounted to just 4,700 people.
The clause is only valid for the EU-8 and can only be activated until May 2014. If implemented, it is estimated that it would cut the number of people moving to Switzerland by just 1,200.
In practical terms, this means quotas would be reintroduced for citizens from these countries.
But because the clause would have little effect on the number people moving to Switzerland, there is in fact little opposition to its implementation.
“As with other countries, employers would have to prove that they cannot find equivalent workers in Switzerland or in the older EU states,” Irene Tschopp of the canton Zurich labour office told swissinfo.ch. “However, as we are talking about long-term residency permits, it wouldn’t really mean extra work for the authorities.”
Any extra administrative work would have to be handled by the employers themselves, another reason why they are generally favourable to the free movement accords and against quotas. Yet their associations have not come out against the safeguard clause, preferring to keep a low profile with immigration concerns running high among the population.
Both the Swiss Business Federation, economiesuisse, and the Swiss Employers Association have already said that they would accept a cap on immigration from eastern Europe.
The Swiss association of small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) has nothing against implementing the clause either, even if it has little to do with hard figures and more with reassuring some of its members.
“If you look at the numbers, it’s clear that immigration will not be slowed down that way,” said its director, Hans-Ulrich Bigler. “SMEs replied in a recent survey that they were clearly in favour of free movement, but there is some unease about immigration.”
Asked whether the population would be content with basically a symbolic measure, Bigler told swissinfo.ch it would leave some breathing space to discuss other issues, even if they were really homegrown and not related to immigration.
“We would have some time to discuss problems such as mobility, housing and employment,” he added.
A majority of centre-right Radical parliamentarians, traditionally close to business interests, have also come out in favour of the safeguard clause
While no one believes that it will slow down immigration, it would act as a safety valve and also hopefully take some of the wind out the rightwing Swiss People’s Party initiative “against mass immigration”, according to Andrea Caroni, a Radical party member of parliament.
But he admits that it could backfire. “It could undermine our own principles of openness and we would get nothing in return except for inefficient quotas.”
Caroni is personally against state regulation of the labour market. “I am convinced that the free movement of people is a success: it lets workers move to Switzerland when needed by the economy and they contribute to our growth,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“Immigration is not a problem so long as the people who come manage to integrate, obey the law, don’t add to the burden of social security and find a job,” he believes, pointing out that unemployment in Switzerland is low compared with other countries.
“For sectors where people might have the feeling we are being flooded with foreign workers, there are accompanying measures. We can also make sure that immigrants get a [limited] five-year residency permit when they arrive and we should pay attention to when we let families come together,” he said.
The centre-left Social Democrats have yet to decide what their position is on the safeguard clause. But party president Christian Levrat has said in media interviews that its implementation should be discussed.
On the other hand, immigration in any shape or form is the one subject sure to get the People’s Party juices flowing, and the safeguard clause is no exception.
“The political mainstream limits itself to wasting time on ineffective measures,” complained editor-in-chief of the Schweizerzeit magazine Ulrich Schlüer, a People’s Party member of parliament.
“The fact is that Switzerland could limit the immigration from the EU-8 from 5,000 to 3,800 people - so around 1,200 people. But once again, a sham measure without any noticeable effect will be applied to hide the Swiss government’s inaction against mass immigration.”
Around 75,000 immigrants arrived in Switzerland last year, or 15 per cent more than in 2010.
At the end of December 2011 there were 1,772,279 foreigners in Switzerland, three per cent more than the previous year, most of them from European Union and European Free Trade Association (Efta) countries.
In total, 142,471 people arrived (134,171 in 2010), while 64,038 left the country (2010: 65,523).
Immigration from non-EU and non-Efta countries was down by 2,978 people, or 3.7 per cent.
The majority of new arrivals are Germans (+12.601), followed by Portuguese (+11,018), Kosovars (+8,923), French (+4,370) and Eritreans (+2,575).
Numbers are falling from Serbia (-10,386), Bosnia and Herzegovina (-1,053), Croatia (-1,011) Sri Lanka (-941) and Turkey (-452).
Immigration from the EU-8 saw 4,700 people move to Switzerland after May 2011, when free movement was allowed from these countries. The increase over 2010 was 68.2 per cent.end of infobox
(Adapted from German by Scott Capper), swissinfo.ch