Einstein, Nestlé, Hayek, Maggi. None of them was born Swiss. Even Switzerland’s newest Olympic gold medallist, Dario Cologna, was initially Italian despite being born in Switzerland (immigrants’ children have no birthright to citizenship). From the men who died digging the famous rail tunnels to the women who live by keeping many houses clean, Switzerland has always needed immigrants but hasn’t always wanted them.
But the SVP initiative to cap immigration from the European Union might change all that. The Swiss will still need foreigners to do the jobs they can’t or won’t do themselves, even if they will soon have to prove that before hiring a foreigner. But it doesn’t want too many of them.
Presumably all those who voted Yes will be happy to clean their own houses, pick their own fruit, serve their own beer and look after the elderly. And wait 20 years until there are enough trained Swiss teachers, IT specialists and doctors to fill the gaps. All those who didn’t vote at all (44% of eligible voters couldn’t be bothered) can’t now complain for years about the result.
It was close – 50.3% Yes to 49.7% No, or a difference of 19,526 votes – and the Röstigraben between French and German was clear to see. In fact the areas with the most immigrants – cities and Romandie – generally voted against the proposal; those with fewer foreigners around them listened to the politics of fear and said Yes.
Switzerland has voted to re-introduce immigration quotas from EU countries within three years, and in doing so renegotiate its 2002 acceptance of the free movement of people. The Swiss aren’t EU members but have signed bilateral agreements with the Union and are part of the Schengen zone of visa-free travel. Now they want to have their (chocolate) cake and eat it: all the benefits of the bilaterals, none of the costs.
Challenging one of the fundamental planks of the EU is a brave move. Economically Switzerland needs the EU more than the other way round: it might be the Union’s 4th most important trading partner but it accounts for only 6.6% of the EU’s foreign trade. Compare that to 62% of Swiss exports going to EU countries, and 79% of its imports coming from them. (Swiss government figures)
Internally, foreigners make up 25% of the workforce, slightly more than in the general population (23%), and in some areas such as hospitality, health care and construction are a much higher percentage. They make a net contribution to the pension system, so supporting the ageing Swiss population. They are an integral part of the Swiss success story. If all the foreigners in Switzerland stopped work for one week, everyone would soon seen how much the Swiss depend on them for their economic well-being.
Other countries have immigration quotas and points systems, but usually they aren’t signed up to freedom of movement agreements. It isn’t free if it’s restricted. And if the Swiss really do break with that principle, then how will the EU react? It could end in a difficult but workable bureaucratic compromise, with neither side really wanting a painful divorce. But it could also end in tears, with Switzerland on the blunt end of European determination to defend its principles.
No access to the single market, no visa-free travel, no use of the open skies over Europe, no research grants, no tariff-free export of cheese. Any or all of those could be possible in a worst-case scenario. Not forgetting the fate of the 450,000 Swiss who currently enjoy the freedom of living in the EU.
Nationalism has not helped anyone in Europe over the past 100 years and it won’t help Switzerland now.
Whatever happens, it’s an interesting time to be a foreigner in Switzerland.