Immigration: one vote, many questions

Eye for an eye: European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has threatened to tighten the right of Swiss citizens to live and work within the EU Keystone

When Swiss voters decided on February 9 to back immigrant quotas, they raised not only the blood pressure of European Union politicians but also many questions among concerned and confused citizens. Here are answers to some of the most frequent questions.

This content was published on February 20, 2014 minutes
Stefania Summermatter and Armando Mombelli,

Who is affected by the curb on immigration?

The amendment to the federal constitution requires upper limits and annual quotas for immigrants. This could affect every foreigner who wants to move to Switzerland: EU citizens, workers from third (non-EU) states, cross-border workers and asylum seekers.

Will there also be consequences for foreigners already living in Switzerland?

Entitlements for foreigners already living in Switzerland continue to be valid. Permits already issued are not affected and should not be included in the quotas.

However, some provisions laid out in the initiative could have repercussions for those already in Switzerland. The amendment – constitutional article 121a – foresees the possibility of limiting access to social benefits, family reunification and long-term residency permits.

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Will foreigners who lose their job have to leave Switzerland?

This isn’t mentioned in the new amendment. That said, ahead of the vote the government took measures to intensify checks and to clarify the conditions under which an EU/EFTA citizen could lose his or her work permit in the case of unemployment.

Currently EU/EFTA citizens living in Switzerland (with an L or B permit) can claim unemployment benefits under certain conditions. Once their claim to an income expires, they have at least six months to find a new job. If they are not successful, they risk losing their work permit – unless they can show that they have the necessary means to get by. One exception is the C permit (which allows holders to change freely the canton where they live and employers).

Will foreign workers still be able to bring their families to Switzerland?

The constitutional amendment foresees limiting the right to family reunification. In 2013, of more than 155,000 new immigrants, 32.2% arrived in Switzerland thanks to this. Of these, more than half came from the EU.

Currently, thanks to the accord on the free movement of people, EU/EFTA citizens in Switzerland have the right to bring certain family members. But this is not automatic – they have to show that they have adequate accommodation “ to Swiss standards”. Self-employed workers have to show they can provide for their partner and/or children.

For citizens of third states, however, the right to a family reunion is subject to much harsher rules.

Economic relations

In view of its geographic and cultural proximity and particularly due to its political and economic importance, the EU with its 28 member states is by far Switzerland's most important partner. In 2012, 56% of Swiss exports went to the EU, and 75% of its imports came from there.

In contrast, Switzerland is the EU’s fourth-largest partner, after the US, China and Russia. 8% of the EU’s exports head towards Switzerland, while 6% of Swiss imports come from the EU.

The EU is also Switzerland main source of direct investment: 77% (CHF500 billion, $562 billion) of capital invested in Switzerland comes from the EU and 40% (more than CHF400 billion) of Swiss investment abroad ends up in the EU.

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Will restrictions on family reunification also have repercussions for Swiss citizens?

The right to a family reunification concerns not only foreigners but also Swiss whose spouse or children live abroad and do not have Swiss citizenship. For them, no specific provisions currently exist – they are subject to the same rules as foreigners. Therefore a restriction on the right to a family reunification for foreigners could also have repercussions for Swiss citizens.

What effect could the curb on immigration have on Swiss living abroad?

For Swiss abroad, acquired rights remain valid in principle, unless the accord on the free movement of people is renegotiated. Despite assurances by Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad has expressed its concerns.

For his part, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has indicated that, tit-for-tat, Swiss citizens could lose the right to live and work within the EU – currently home to more than half the 732,000 Swiss who live abroad.

What will change for employers? Will they still be able to hire foreign workers?

According to the new constitutional amendment, the principle of “national preference” should be respected. This means that in order to employ a foreign worker, a company will be obliged to show that it has looked for the ideal candidate in Switzerland but couldn’t find him or her. A similar system is already used when hiring workers from third states and involves a significant amount of red tape, above all for small and medium-sized businesses.

At present, since January 1, 2004, Swiss and EU job seekers enjoy equal priority over applicants from third states. The amendment therefore involves a complete change and a renegotiation of the accord on the free movement of people.

Foreigners in Switzerland

In 2013, there were 1,886,000 foreigners living in Switzerland, 3.4% more than the previous year. Two-thirds came from an EU/EFTA country.

Italians make up the largest group of foreigners in Switzerland (301,100 at the end of 2013), followed by Germans (293,100), Portuguese (253,700) and French (110,000).

Around 81,000 more people arrived in Switzerland in 2013 than left it, 10.6% more than the previous year. The biggest increases were from Portugal (15,703), Germany (7,777), Italy (6,895) and France (6,261).

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When will the curb on immigration enter into force?

According to the new constitutional amendment, upper limits and annual quotas for foreigners should be applied within three years of the vote on February 9. The government has already indicated that it plans to draw up a strategy to implement the new rules outlined in the initiative by the end of June. A bill for parliament to approve is expected by the end of this year, so that the quota system can come into force by February 2017. Voters might still be asked to have the final word on the legal amendment.

A quick decision on implementation is in Switzerland’s interests: the current uncertainty is having a negative effect on relations between Switzerland and the EU and risks weakening Bern’s position in talks with Brussels on continuing with the bilateral accords currently in place and on signing new agreements.

What immediate effects has the vote had?

One provision has entered into force immediately: the government cannot sign international agreements which contradict the new amendment – such as the one extending the free movement of people to newest EU member Croatia. The agreement’s future is uncertain.

To what extent will the immigration of EU workers be limited?

The new constitutional amendment does not fix any numbers – it only indicates that quotas will have to be set “based on the global economic interest of Switzerland”. The backers of the initiative say halving the total net immigration – an average of 77,000 people a year between 2007 and 2012 – would be desirable.

The nature of the quotas has not been defined either. They could be assigned taking into consideration the workforce needs of the various Swiss regions, of economic sectors or of professional categories. In any case, heated disputes are looming between the interested parties.

Will the EU be able to accept restrictions by Switzerland concerning the free movement of people?

The EU has stressed that the free movement of people is non-negotiable. If Switzerland introduces immigration quotas on EU citizens, the so-called “guillotine clause” could be invoked, cancelling all seven bilateral accords which entered into force in 2002 (on the free movement of people, technical barriers to trade, public procurement markets, agriculture, research, civil aviation and overland transport). These accords have established reciprocal access to the respective domestic markets.

What other significant accords are threatened?

Bern and Brussels have opened talks with a view to signing various other bilateral accords, including the accord on Swiss participation in satnav projects (Galileo and EGNOS), on the EU regulation for chemical safety (REACH) or on the trade of carbon emissions.

Other accords deal mostly with the EU, in particular on institutional questions and the taxation of businesses and savings. On the last of these could depend access for Swiss banks to the European market.

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