‘Swiss will come back to the EU on their knees’

Italian MEP Lorenzo Fontana from the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group waves a Swiss flag in the plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg Keystone

Switzerland indirectly triggered a scene in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday during a debate on the future of Swiss-EU relations. One rightwing Italian politician was removed from the chamber for brandishing a Swiss flag and yelling about EU dictatorship.

This content was published on February 26, 2014 and agencies

The debate, taking place two weeks after 50.3% of Swiss voters approved a proposal to reintroduce immigration quotas, had started peacefully.

But when László Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, declared that “quotas are contrary to the principle of free movement that the EU enjoys with Switzerland”, this was too much for Italian politician Mario Borghezio.

“Freedom for the people!” he interrupted, unfurling a Swiss flag. “Let’s put an end to EU dictatorship. Respect the Swiss vote.”

Borghezio is a member of Italy’s eurosceptic Lega Nord and currently sits as a non-attached MEP. He was previously a member of a eurosceptic group in the European Parliament before being expelled last year for making racist comments about Italy’s Congolese-born integration minister.

Continuing to wave the Swiss flag, he was ushered out of the chamber and must now await “further steps [to be] taken in line with the rules of procedure”, according to Rainer Wieland, one of the parliament’s vice-presidents.

Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian leader of the Social Democrat group, then accused Borghezio of being “naive for celebrating the fact that many European citizens in Switzerland could lose their job”.

‘Serious consequences’

One of the consequences of the Swiss vote – put forward by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – is that Swiss job-seekers must now be given preference over non-Swiss.

Also, Switzerland will have to renegotiate its bilateral accord with the EU on the free movement of people within three years or revoke it.

The Swiss government has confirmed that, as a result of the vote, it cannot sign an already agreed deal to grant Croatian job seekers access to Switzerland. Croatia is an EU member state.

The EU promptly responded by halting talks to include Switzerland in multi-billion euro research and education schemes. 

On Wednesday, EU Commissioner Andor confirmed Switzerland would not take part in the Erasmus+ student exchange programme for 2014-15.

Before the vote, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso emphasised that without the free movement of people, Switzerland would not have privileged access to the European market.

After it, he talked about “serious consequences” for bilateral relations. He did not spell out any specific sanctions, but he implied that Swiss people could lose the right to live and work in the EU, including neighbouring Germany, France and Italy, and Swiss companies might also face obstacles.

‘Common sense’

Back in Strasbourg on Wednesday, Green group co-leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit said the Swiss “are perfectly entitled to vote as they wish, but they are perfectly entitled to take responsibility for the consequences of that vote”.

He added: “Sort yourselves out, and come back when you’ve worked out the answer. The Swiss will come back to us on their knees as they need us.”

Wieland urged Cohn-Bendit to calm down, accusing him of using unparliamentary language.

Philip Claeys, an MEP from Belgium’s rightwing Vlaams Belang party, chipped in, saying the EU was showing its “authoritarian nature” by criticising the Swiss vote.

“This has nothing to do with xenophobia. This is a return to common sense,” he said.

Andor finished by pointing out that 450,000 Swiss citizens live in the EU and 1.2 million EU citizens live in Switzerland – not to mention some 250,000 cross-border workers.

“It’s up to Switzerland to react to the consequences of the referendum,” he concluded. “But we’re certainly going to work together with the Swiss government so that relations get back on equal terms, acceptable to both sides.”

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