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Border cantons are not afraid of influx

Basel is used to the ebb and flow of cross-border traffic Keystone

German-speaking border cantons do not anticipate an influx of immigrants if the Swiss labour market is opened to ten more European Union (EU) states.

Switzerland goes to the polls on September 25 on whether to extend the free movement of people accord to the new EU member states.

“Employers in Basel are used to working together with people of other nationalities. For years there have been people who live nearby in neighbouring countries crossing the border to work in Basel,” Sonja Regna explains, ahead of the September vote.

Regna, an official from the union Unia, confirms that the extension of the free movement of people is not the main thing on the minds of employers in this meeting point of three countries.

“I think people are much more concerned about general working conditions,” she told swissinfo.

No fear

In contrast to the cantons of Ticino and Geneva, the Swiss-German border cantons Basel, Schaffhausen and St Gallen have not recorded a significant increase in EU workers since full free movement of people for the 15 old EU member states came into force just over a year ago.

Therefore there are few fears of the employment market being swamped by cheap labour from the new EU states in the event of a yes on September 25.

“If there has been a public discussion about the dangers to a border canton of extending the free movement of people, then I haven’t heard about it,” Marie-Thérèse Kuhn, head of the economy and labour office of canton Basel City, told swissinfo.

“We border France and Germany and are economically strongly interconnected with the Alsace and Baden regions. Basel is a very open canton,” Kuhn maintains. “The employment market urgently needs foreign labour. In comparison with the rest of Switzerland, Basel has more available jobs per head of population.”

The Basel cantonal government is also firmly in favour of a yes vote. It argues that the economy and research would not be workable without foreign labour and that the planned measures to prevent abuse are adequate.

The long tradition of good cooperation with citizens of EU states is worth holding on to, Ralph Lewin, president of the local government, explains. “As a small nation, Switzerland must protect and look after its image as an international and open country.”

Trade partners

The referendum campaign in the border cantons of eastern Switzerland is similar to the rest of German-speaking Switzerland. Unia is also seeking a yes here, arguing that the accompanying measures will provide “effective protection for our salaries”.

Business associations here have also taken the position that a rejection would endanger business relationships with important trading partners and hinder future trade.

The head of the St Gallen economy office, Nicolo Paganini, points out that in the last year, 62 per cent of migrant workers came from Germany and 32 per cent from Austria.

From the rest of the EU/EFTA countries it has mainly been Dutch and Italians moving to St Gallen, but no one from Spain or Greece.

“So nobody came from the countries with the biggest salary and prosperity disparities,” Paganini said.

This distance factor will also apply to people from eastern Europe, claims Paganini. Poles, Hungarians and Czechs might come to Switzerland to work, but Swiss salaries are only attractive when the money can be spent back home. And that is where distance acts as a hindrance.

swissinfo, Andreas Keiser

There are just under 19,000 people from the ten new EU countries living in Switzerland.

Poles make up the biggest group with 4,900 people. Within the last year 674 Poles came to Switzerland while 285 left the country.

A block of 700 work permits for potential workers from the new EU states has been allocated for a five-year period. Just 20 per cent of these have been given out.

Take-up of the 2,500 short-term permits is around 75 per cent. Some 846,000 people from the old EU countries live in Switzerland.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR