Newspapers stress significance of immigration vote

Swiss president Didier Burkhalter, flanked by cabinet colleagues Simonetta Sommaruga and Doris Leuthard arrive for a press conference Reuters

Monday’s Swiss newspapers point to the historical significance and the uncertain repercussions of voters’ support for immigration curbs; reactions vary from calling it a “worst case scenario” to a “victory”.

This content was published on February 10, 2014 - 10:58
Chantal Britt,

Most papers draw a comparison with the vote in 1992, when the Swiss people narrowly rejected  membership of the European Economic Area, the predecessor of the European Union.

The business-friendly Neue Zürcher Zeitung writes that the decision is “much more than a political slap in the face”, calling it a “watershed” comparable to that of 1992.

The NZZ warns that as an integral part of the bilateral agreements with the EU, the existing free movement deal will no longer be valid in its current form.

What the verdict means for the relationship between Switzerland and the EU is “entirely open”, the NZZ comments. “But it will certainly not be good for the domestic economy and thus for the prosperity of this country.”

The Basler Zeitung, which is part-owned by People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher, takes a different view. The People’s Party was the initiator of the campaign and the only major party which supported it.

On February 9, 2014, the “whole of Switzerland” won, the paper believes. It describes the decision as “probably the worst defeat ever” for trade associations and the employers’ association, and says that the second “cracking loser” was the cabinet.

ʻRationally inexplicableʼ

The St Galler Tagblatt, based in north-eastern Switzerland, sees the lethargy of the political elite as one reason for the defeat. “With a certain degree of nonchalance it played down the genuinely negative repercussions of the systematic free movement of people and did not take them seriously enough.”

A commentator in Südostschweiz, based in the south-east, says that the approval of the initiative is “rationally almost inexplicable”. He takes the Swiss to task over their self-image, describing it as “a mixture of self-aggrandisement and minority complexes”. The consequence is a vague fear of loss, which was cleverly exploited by right-wing politicians.

The Bern-based Bund writes that housing shortages, high rents, wage pressure and competition arising from high levels of immigration had triggered a feeling of loss of control, which in a system of direct democracy was bound to have consequences.

The Aargauer Zeitung points out that it was people living in rural areas, which are the least affected, who leveraged the victory. “There has not been such a marked divide between cities and countryside or between the German and French-speaking cantons for a long time,” it says. It adds that the cancellation of the bilateral agreements would be a “worst case scenario for Switzerland”, and comments that “the result shows an openness to risk.”

In Italian speaking canton Ticino La Regione attempts to find a reason for the massive yes vote there. “At the ballot box, Swiss voters – especially those in Ticino – wanted to highlight the disadvantages they experience daily. Above all, the impact on the job market caused by the free movement of people, which has mean that foreign workers have taken jobs from locals and the fact that flanking measures introduced to prevent wage dumping haven’t worked.”

No fear of risk

The Neue Luzerner Zeitung writes that a majority simply wants a more reasonable immigration policy, and is willing to take on board the risks this entails.

The uncertainties created will mostly affect investments, which will hurt the construction industry, the paper says. But it also suggests that the Swiss vote could “set new standards in Europe”.

The Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger calls the result a “partial rejection of globalisation and European integration”. Problems like urban sprawl, salary and immigration pressure are real, but “cannot be solved along ethnic and national borders as the myth that Switzerland is a special case wants us to believe”, the newspaper writes.

It adds that a majority of the people heeded a party which could now become something like the European spearhead of the foreigner-critical or even xenophobe movements that exist in all EU states.

Reactions abroad

Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes that the result is the worst defeat for the government, the political parties (apart from the People’s Party) as well as for representatives of employers and unions since 1992.

The question has split the country in two halves, another German newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung says. The Swiss decision may become an explosive force in Brussels and other EU capitals. It could be a warning sign for the EU, or a beacon for the future.

The Financial Times of Britain also highlights the fact that the result of the vote is likely to reverberate across Europe. It writes that the decision “will be a shot in the arm to Eurosceptics – in Britain and beyond – who are calling for tighter immigration curbs and a repatriation of powers.”

Belgium’s De Standaard carries an article with the headline “Building fences in the name of the homeland” in which it says that Swiss voters have “thumbed their nose” at Brussels.

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ʻResounding slap in the faceʼ

In the French-speaking part of Switzerland, where a majority of voters rejected the initiative, the newspapers predict difficult negotiations with the EU. The Tribune de Genève calls the return to quotas a “resounding slap in the face to Europe”.

It will take “genius and pragmatism” to meet the new situation, the Geneva-based newspaper writes, and it stresses the importance of not restricting the needs of the cantons and businesses by the imposition of quotas.

The Lausanne-based daily 24 heures, writes about how “a prosperous country has invented a major crisis for itself”. The Swiss people are once again as divided as they were in 1992, it comments.

“It will be a rough ride for a country that is economically very well integrated but politically very isolated,” it adds.

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