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Campaign launched against move to cut number of foreigners

The "Committee against the 18 per cent initiative" launching its campaign in Berne Keystone

Opponents of proposals to set quotas for foreigners have launched a campaign ahead of a nationwide vote on the issue in September. They warned that restricting the number of foreigners could severely damage the Swiss economy, and relations with Europe.

Launching its campaign in Berne on Thursday, the “Committee against the 18 per cent initiative” said proposals to restrict the number of foreigners in Switzerland would have dire consequences.

The committee, made up of 186 parliamentarians from seven parties, including the four in government, is resolutely opposed to an initiative, which proposes restricting the number of foreigners in Switzerland to 18 per cent of the population.

A leading committee member, Vreny Spoerry – a Radical party member of the Senate for Zurich – said the immediate effect of a “yes” would be to damage Switzerland’s relations with the European Union.

Last May, Swiss voters approved a series of bilateral accords with the EU, including an agreement permitting the free movement of people. Spoerry said EU member states would not ratify the accords if the “18 per cent initiative” was successful.

She said this alone would be a high price to pay, but warned that further economic damage would be inevitable.

Currently, foreigners make up 19.3 per cent of Switzerland’s population. The committee says the initiative would therefore result in a “de facto” ban on the recruitment of foreign workers, which would be detrimental to the Swiss economy.

The committee’s position is that more effort should be made to integrate foreigners, and to make it easier for them to become Swiss citizens. It says this would bring the foreign population down to European levels of around eight per cent.

Those in favour of the “18 per cent initiative” argue that the number of foreigners in Switzerland is getting out of hand.

In an article in Thursday’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the leading proponent of the initiative, Aargau parliamentarian, Philipp Müller, writes that the foreign population has grown by more than 42 per cent since 1986, and is becoming a major burden to the social welfare state.

Müller says the vast majority of foreigners are from outside the European Union and depend on unemployment benefit to survive. He also warns that, as it ages, the growing foreign population will stretch the state pension scheme to breaking point.

Müller also refutes arguments that the “18 per cent initiative” would deprive the economy of much-needed foreign labour. “It [would still] allow the state to issue 72,000 new work permits to foreigners every year,” he writes, adding that this is sufficient to provide Swiss industry with all the skilled personnel it needs.

Müller also denies that the initiative would threaten Switzerland’s bilateral accords with the EU. “The government has repeatedly made clear that there will be no massive influx of people from the EU. This has been demonstrated by studies which suggest that a maximum of 10,000 people can be expected to come to Switzerland once the borders are opened.”

The Swiss government and parliament have already made clear their opposition to the initiative. Earlier this year, the government put forward a compromise solution, which would make it more difficult for non-EU citizens to come to Switzerland.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR