The Swiss boat is full

February 10, 2014, 38 Comments

Vote result 9.2.14

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.


38 Comments on "The Swiss boat is full"

  1. Julie Monday February 10th, 2014 at 10:37 AM · Reply

    Very well written – thanks!

  2. Matt Monday February 10th, 2014 at 11:33 AM · Reply

    Well said, Diccon. I think you articulated what a lot of people are thinking.

  3. H. Müller Monday February 10th, 2014 at 01:14 PM · Reply

    If you maybe would have spent time to actually read the initiative you would realize that it’s not against foreign nationals. The vote only wants to regulate the amount of people entering Switzerland. It’s funny, that we need to justify ourself, even though it is a right of each country to regulate or set his own laws. Just look at the US or any other big country, they all regulate their imigration by themselves. So before you judge us, maybe you should look around first. Btw other small input, if you dislike it here, it’s up to you to leave Switzerland…

    • J murley Monday February 10th, 2014 at 06:04 PM · Reply

      Do NOT use the US as an example for ANYTHING the Swiss find as appropriate or legal! We had our car stolen by a swiss citizen: Marco Sala. He has done the same thing to 3 other people. Your prosecutors declare his stealing our cars as a Civil matter in order to lie about the low crime rates. Who sells their cars with their children’s car seat and toys still in the vehicle !?! This also means we do not get a payout from our insurance company. He has never paid anything to any of us, he has changed his address every month and when asked by the police, he was let go because he simply lied and said,”I paid them.” The Swiss Prosecutor NEVER verified he sent money. And no he never did to any of us. This corruption is similar to how countries like Mexico run their local governments. The Swiss take advantage of the very people they need. Their hatred is hidden by their smiles and slick politicians begging us to move our companies to their cantons. Once we are there, they rob us with ridiculously high costs of living and little to no legal protection. Unlike the Swiss, The US is more than happy to welcome British citizens into our country as well as anyone else who wants to bring financial prosperity while using very few of our welfare/ social services. And we prosecute anyone who commits a crime- no matter who the victims are.

    • Diccon Bewes Monday February 10th, 2014 at 09:02 PM · Reply

      I have read the initiative very carefully and the point is that you do need to justify yourselves. Switzerland voted to be part of the free movement of people so is obliged to adhere to its rules. The USA has no such agreement so of course can regulate its immigration. If Switzerland wants to leave the bilaterals then fine, that is its right. But it then can’t expect to benefit from the single market, research funds, visa-free travel or open skies. As you said to me, if you don’t like it, then leave – and by that I mean leave the single market, close your borders and see what happens.
      And I guess you wouldn’t want all the foreigners who don’t like it to leave otherwise there would be an awful lot of unfilled jobs here. Or perhaps you would like to go and pick fruit?

      • Sean Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 08:18 AM · Reply

        I agree, until this vote, Switzerland had played a blinder: we get most of the benefits of being in the EU, such as easy travel, trade and access to researching funding (our company was involved in the last round called FP7), and almost none of the downsides (bailing out Greece, paying for the Common Agricultural Policy etc) that get the Germans and British so annoyed. The wording of the initiative is not what is important, what matters are all the agreements and treaties that it messes up. The Swiss federal negotiators now have a fearsome take ahead of them, and with several EU states getting restless, I don’t think the European Commission will just roll over and let the Swiss have everything their own way. So this isn’t about us Auslanders disliking it here and leaving, we’re just taking the broader view and worried for Switzerland as a whole and its place in the world if it abandons Schengen. However it is all part of a bigger debate that is happening all over the world about localism v.s. globalisation.

    • F. Muro Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 01:23 AM · Reply

      H. Müller there is no point at all the words you wrote down. We can see very clearly that you want to defend a cause with examples that are completely out of context. The US are not in an economic group agreement such as Switzerland is and they are not even in the same continent, so understand that your mouth shut will sound as a symphony, dear! Diccon Bewes only put an argument that make us all think about what happens today and probably will affect Switzerland in some how. I do not wish the worst to Switzerland, I only don’t agree the way Switzerland is used to do, which is getting the best part of the things and then the rest Switzerland throws them away or what you are more used to listen: Le beurre et l’argent du beurre.
      H. Müller your last phrase was so poor and small as you should be. And YES, now you do need to justify yourselves! Good luck.

    • S. Müller Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 03:45 PM · Reply

      As a Swiss national living in Switzerland I would like to apologise for H Müller’s unqualified comments. The individual can read (as he claims to have read the initiative text) however that does not illustrate that this individual can think. H. Müller does not fathom the concept in the slightest. Where do you think your exports will go if the situation arises that the all agreements with the EU get cancelled? If you want a country with only Swiss people who will come here on holiday? Have you seen the growth statistics since 2002 when the borders were openned up? Has this led to mass unemployment? What are you so scared of? Are you scared that better qualified people will take your job? Then you should have paid more attention in school and acquired higher education! Are you scared you will get gazumped when buying or renting a property? Then go and live in Horrenbach-Buchen where 93% of the voters are sharing your narrow minded ideology, and property is affordale. What else could your concern be?
      Do you really think that you can cherry pick from the EU what you want? You must be dreaming! Either you take it as it was pre-initiative, or deal with the consequences. The amusing thing is of course that if the EU comes along with harsh sanctions they will come onto you like a ton of bricks H. Müller, and then there will be no other option but to join the EU as Switzerland will be a derelict area economically speaking. Switzerland will suffocate in it’s own manure as farming will be the only industry left! Well… until no more subsidies get paid to the farmers because the state will have no more cash to distribute upon which even that industry will be bust.

      • Diccon Bewes Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 07:33 PM · Reply

        Thank you S. Müller for asking all the same questions that are also on my mind. Logical reasonable questions that need answering but some people would prefer aren’t asked at all

      • Stella Sunday February 16th, 2014 at 11:09 PM · Reply

        Looks like S.Müller didn’t read the initiativ-text.

        The most times (when not every time) I was in Switserland, there were contignents to foreigners and that wasn’t contignenting on tourist-foreiners. There were also lots of seasonal worker – with or without family who came and went. Swiss did well.
        If you cross out these seasonal workers, I can agree with sort of restoring the old contignenting and most European countries would like to do so.

  4. NicoleK Monday February 10th, 2014 at 03:13 PM · Reply

    The measure doesn’t end immigration.

    • Diccon Bewes Monday February 10th, 2014 at 09:03 PM · Reply

      True and I never said it did. But it introduces quotas that by definition are against the free movement of people, and that could put the bilaterals in question

    • Stella Sunday February 16th, 2014 at 11:09 PM · Reply

      The messure isn’t ment to end immigration.

  5. David Monday February 10th, 2014 at 03:25 PM · Reply

    As an «eingebürgter + Auslands + Papier + Schweizer» I voted NO, only to see it WORK for Zurich and FAIL for the rest of the country. I stayed up very last in East Asia, finding very scary headliners… a repeat of the “F*** the EU” on the Tages-Anzeiger’s iPhone app…

    In the very end, the very, very worst would be a Switzerland that would be pre-Schengen: compulsory visas and permits (probably even to Büsingen am Hochrhein, maybe)… It has been a fierce duel between government and the SVP and the people. The vote has produced no REAL winners. The “success” / “win” of the SVP appears grandiose, probably bloated, but this is going to hurt Switzerland more than one might imagine.

  6. Rosealys Monday February 10th, 2014 at 03:40 PM · Reply

    Thankyou for setting this out so well. I hope you don’t mind if I link to it from my blog. You express things much better that I can, particularly when I’m annoyed about something!
    Does this invalidate the Switzerland / Schengen agreement, I wonder?


    • Diccon Bewes Monday February 10th, 2014 at 09:11 PM · Reply

      Of course I don’t mind Rose.
      In theory it could invalidate the Schengen agreement as signatories guarantee open borders and free movement of people. In effect it will depend on how the new proposal is implemented and how the EU reacts.

  7. Elisabeth Monday February 10th, 2014 at 05:16 PM · Reply

    There is no birth right in Italy either….. My kids can be born in Milan, live here for 15 years and they will not be considered italian anyway….

  8. Peter Monday February 10th, 2014 at 10:15 PM · Reply


    “But Switzerland does want to enjoy the benefits of the single market… ” I hear a lot.

    “69% of Switzerland’s foreign trade is with the EU…” I also hear.

    Maybe the same people should consider the following fact: Switzerland is a net importer of goods and services from the EU to the tune of 2,500 Million Swiss Francs. It would be EU’s loss if the trade is limited, not Switzerland’s.

    In the southern canton Swiss have been fired only to be replaced with much cheaper (salary-wise) Italians. Unfortunately, the quotas are not the best solution. What perhaps should have been done is this: Enforce a rule that states that to employ a foreign national, you are obliged to pay a minimum of the average salary in the field for such a position for a person with the required qualifications. That would stop the salary-dumping that happens right now.

    In the western European countries they are not so happy about eastern workers coming there and working for half the salaries, dumping the salaries, but in those countries you are a racist if you say so, and you don’t get a referendum about it anyhow, so who cares?

    • Mark Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 02:04 PM · Reply

      I think you’re leaving out how many Swiss live and work abroad. There are a lot of young Swiss who may have just lost job opportunities in London, Paris, and Berlin.

  9. uelimaurer Monday February 10th, 2014 at 11:30 PM · Reply

    Well, why don’t you fuck off back do Spain and enjoy unemployement?

    • Diccon Bewes Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 11:23 AM · Reply

      Because I am from Britain, that’s why.

  10. Christian Walter Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 01:40 AM · Reply

    Well guys, As somebody who is as well travelled and internationally connected as they come in Switzerland with a English wife and dual nationality children I am not happy about yesterday’s vote. But I am also not happy about people slagging off direct democracy. Yes, it may be unfortunate if the people decide against my inclinations, but we should always respect the government of the ‘vox populus’ simply as there is not alternative.

    If Britain had a vote about the same issue I for one wouldn’t want to predict the outcome. Fact is that globalization and immigration has put fear into many Swiss, working and middle class. Salaries have remained flat and cost of living is exorbitantly higher than in the rest of Europe.

    Of course if thought through we depend on the Germans for our hospitals, the Polish for our fruit picking, the Portuguese for cleaners and the Spanish for builders just to name a few stereotypes. But people aren’t always logical and globalization has shown many losers in recent years. This vote has to be seen as just that. An outcry and a general feeling of helplessness.

    We will see what will come out of it. Typically the final solution won’t be so radical on either side.

    For the foreigners feeling unwelcome I would like to state that 49.7%b of us voted in favor of open borders and the more urban centers, where most foreigners live all unambiguously voted so. Hence, again differentiate. Not all Swiss are the same.


    Christian Walter

    • Mark Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 01:11 PM · Reply

      I don’t think anybody’s “slagging off” direct democracy – It would be difficult to love this country as much as we do without also loving direct democracy. By the same token obviously not all Swiss are the same, I don’t think anybody’s saying that either.

      I think it’s fine, however, to express concern about the possible negative outcome of this vote. Thanks Diccon for the excellent summary.

      That said, there are also some possible positive outcome. The best case scenerio could be if the ECB and the European Commission takes this as an early warning: Switzerland isn’t in the EU so it can’t leave, and so while this move may have economic impacts in both directions it won’t threaten the structure of the EU itself. However a result like this in Britain will signal the beginning of the end.

  11. Pete Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 06:35 AM · Reply

    EU retaliation? No problem. The sun is rising in “Putin’s Russia”…it is the EU that will lose big time if they start a “war” with the Swiss.

    • Mark Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 10:03 PM · Reply

      Huh? There’s no war between the EU and the Swiss.

      If there’s any war at all it’s between the UDC/SVP and all of the other parties. Isn’t that perfectly clear?

      The EU and the Swiss people and their economies are just collatoral damage.

  12. Eric Montandon, Worb Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 11:56 AM · Reply

    An excellent description and judgement of a foreigner, who knows and appreciates the Europe`s Landlocked Island. Thank you!
    One might be proud of our direct democracy. However, it implies that we pay attention to all kind of PR-leaders. I am sorry to say, that for me some behaving and reactions of the “he-goat”- party and many of its “she-goats” ring a bell to the 30ties of the last century.

  13. Wilhelm Tell Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 06:22 PM · Reply

    No one is forced to stay in Switzerland. You are free to go back in your own country and earn much much much less that in Switzerland.
    Ask yourself why you are here!!!!

    • Diccon Bewes Tuesday February 11th, 2014 at 06:33 PM · Reply

      Really? That’s the best response you can come up with? Then again you hide behind a fictional name so obviously don’t have the courage to say what you think personally.

      • Jurg Gerber Monday February 17th, 2014 at 11:22 PM · Reply

        As a native of Switzerland and a naturalized citizen of the US, it never ceases to amaze me that many isolationists and “patriots” in both countries make the exact same argument: “If you don’t like it here, go back to whateverer country you are from.” It does not occur to them that you can be concerned about, or even critical of, some aspects of your host country and still love it.

    • Mark Saturday February 15th, 2014 at 05:11 PM · Reply

      I took about a 10% pay-cut to come here.

      I came here for superior public transport and walk-able neighbourhoods, especially pedestrianised old towns. As I recall the UDC aren’t very fond of these aspects of Switzerland.

      I’m also into languages, mountains, and proportional representation and but that’s neither here nor there.

  14. j tapley Thursday February 13th, 2014 at 10:38 AM · Reply

    A US citizen living in CH for 4 years on a B permit and recently married to my Swiss-German beau of 9 years, I must say that I love my life here without (much) qualification – like most of the expats who have commented. I’ve found the Swiss version of participative democracy to be fascinating, although this recent vote highlights the aspects of this practice that confuse me. It would seem that, in order for this kind of participative democracy to work well on issues that have national consequence, the system would require a highly motivated populace [to get out and vote], and a well-informed populace that understands the magnitude of the issue, pro and con [which perhaps thus requires more open public debate]. WIth 44% of voters not voting and most of those who did voting out of uninformed fear – not facts – of the unknown, an otherwise brilliant system gets derailed by a mere 19,000 individuals. The parties and organizations who were against this referendum did a miserable job of countering the SVP’s stark imagery and over-simplification (which is, by the way – sadly – brilliant). At no time did I hear any rhetoric from opponents other than “this is a bad idea”. At no time did I hear what the far-reaching consequences of a ‘yes’ vote could be. In fact, the effort to co-opt the SVP’s imagery sans any clear articulation of a contrarian position only added confusion and, probably, worked in favor of the initiative.

    It’s also interesting that legal non-citizen residents are not allowed to vote here. I’m curious about how this vote might have turned out if the nearly 1/3 of the population of Basel that is imported by pharmaceutical giants Roche & Novartis were allowed to weigh in on the issue. We pay taxes and support the social welfare system, employ Swiss people and yet have no voice in the decisions that determine how those funds are allocated and the policies that govern our lives here. While I am loathe to make facile comparisons, even in the US – a flawed system to be sure – legal resident aliens [tax-paying and otherwise] are entitled to representation in elections of local and national magnitude.

    It will be interesting to see how it plays out…If an implementation proposal is defined that can get approved…If the EU plays hardball… and what recourse there will be when, in its implementation, the wrongheadedness off this decision becomes as clear to its supporters as it was to its opponents from the start.

  15. T.Martin Lesh Wednesday February 19th, 2014 at 04:49 PM · Reply

    The scary thing is this is becoming a trend thru out the EU .. especially the Benelux and Scandinavian countries . As things continue to rush towards the Far Left … the Hard Right will continue to knee jerk its way back into mainstream politics and this is being evidenced all thru the EU / UK as well as here in the US . And what nine times out of ten is the first target of the Hard Right ? Immigrants and immigration .

    The one hope is – considering the fact that the wife and I are considering retiring in CH [ family ties in Tichino region ] that the Swiss sensibility will come back to the fore and find some semblance of balance between an Open Door and a Closed Fist policy as neither in the long run does anyone any good .

    Well written article btw .. one of your best in fact despite the subject being less than pleasant … and thanks !

  16. T.Martin Lesh Thursday February 20th, 2014 at 06:11 PM · Reply

    Diccon – Here’s an interesting twist on this story …recently reported today by our [ US ] NPR as well as showing up in several Federal government bulletins and newsletters .

    In the last year a record number of American citizens have been renouncing their US citizenship in order remain in the foreign country they’re now residing in … due in part to the US regulations making it all but impossible for Americans to have an overseas bank account despite your residing in that foreign country

    The #1 country of choice for the ‘ renouncers ‘ ? CH . With CH currently having a 24 month backlog on applications to renounce . Who are these renouncers ? Retired career military – engineers – physicists – pharmaceutical professionals – scientists etc

    In light of the recent vote in CH .. it’ll be real interesting to see how this emerging debacle plays out … and with our plans for the future … we’ll be paying close attention every step of the way .

    • Diccon Bewes Thursday February 20th, 2014 at 06:41 PM · Reply

      That’s been a story over here too, mainly because so many Swiss banks are reluctant to open accounts for Americans and the IRS making it hard for Americans living abroad. All to do with tax!

  17. Thordeus Thursday May 21st, 2015 at 11:17 PM · Reply

    “listened to the politics of fear and said Yes.”

    Sure, wanting something different than the PC multiculturalist ideology is always fear and hate. It can’t possibly be wanting to protect what’s dear? How much can you expand your family with new people until it doesn’t feel like your family anymore? Besides, how can it be fear? They know what they’ve gotten already and they say, thanks but that’s enough. I’ve had my fill and I’m not thirsty anymore. If that is fear, then it’s fear of being forced to drink what you do not want.

    “no use of the open skies over Europe”

    Are you suggesting the EU would force Switzerland by literally isolating them until they give up? Doesn’t sound very free to me in that case. Hard to do without coming off as a big bully.

    “Nationalism has not helped anyone in Europe over the past 100 years and it won’t help Switzerland now.”

    Like I hinted at initially, there is a limit to how large of a percentage of foreginers (also depending on where they come from) an area can handle without turning into something completely different. As in no more Switzerland. As a famous french philosopher said, demographics is destiny.

    I recommend that you are a bit more respectful towards other points of view in this question. I actually liked your book a lot, but your endless PC-attitude is quite tiring, both here and in the book.

  18. Juan Perez Tuesday July 14th, 2015 at 11:46 AM · Reply

    To the ones saying “If you don’t like our country, leave!! “, the counter-response from the foreigners to you could be the same. If you don’t like immigration, leave.
    If the problem is only the 50.3% of Swiss population, that is not a majority but the half, the EU should just take over Switzerland and send them to Siberia or Sahara, problem solved.
    The one defending the US’ way (like H. Müller) or the Russian sunrise (like Pete) seem to love this style (maybe he does prefer hordes of Russians taking over Switzerland, if he doesn’t like the Slavic people right now in there).
    To the Swiss nationalists: (and to the ones from any other country): If you think that it is “your” country because you have the citizenship, make it clear that you “own” nothing. Unless you bought the country is not yours, luckily your house (even). If you look at the history, this could change at any time. Track how lines in the map moved through the decades. Track your lineage, likely you will find it out that your ancestors were not Swiss at all ..
    Look at he map .. what is surrounding Switzerland? How are you planning to export or move if the EU changes its approach to a more American or Russian one? As you see, the idea of that you own your country is just an illusion. In fact, citizenship is just another agreement to have some world order. But that could change at any time again, wait for the Tiger sunrise in China.
    In my opinion, citizenship is an outdated concept, Today what does matter to me is who works and pays taxes. If he or she contributes to the country and world’s development, welcome, why should I care where is he from? Or maybe are you loving to support economically lazy people or criminals only because they are your fellow citizens (i.e. born nearby?)
    It is a common narrow minded idea to think that the current economic success of a country (only 1 minute in the whole world history timeline) is due to the smartness or superiority of the ones inside. Of course, it is easier and more convenient to think so than confessing that banking in Switzerland gives you wealthiness maybe because of the gold and jewels of millions of Jewish customers who never came back to withdraw, who naive put his goods there trusting of the faked neutrality of Switzerland with the Nazi’s .. or supporting drug dealers and mafias with its tax heavens and secret accounts. It’s better to think that you reached the summit in the ranks selling cheese and chocolates, and of course that foreign workers didn’t help.
    Thank you Diccon Bewes for your respectful way to present the discussion.

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