Result a serious slap in the face for Switzerland’s establishment

SVP leader says he wanted quick action to implement migration quotas

People demonstrate against the result of a national referendum in Zürichafter voters approve move to curb migration. Photograph: Steffen Schmidt/EPA

People demonstrate against the result of a national referendum in Zürichafter voters approve move to curb migration. Photograph: Steffen Schmidt/EPA

Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 01:00

Switzerland woke up yesterday in a state of shock and awe after a majority voted to close its open door to the EU and reimpose migration quotas.

Some 50.3 per cent of Swiss voters backed scrapping the 1999 free movement deal with the EU, an impressive if tight victory for the populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and a serious slap in the face for the Swiss establishment.

Amid much head-scratching yesterday over the vote’s consequences was widespread agreement that it marked the SVP’s greatest success yet in tapping a seam of popular dissatisfaction lurking behind the tidy Swiss facade.

With a population of eight million and a migrant quota of almost a quarter, the SVP’s successful vote on Sunday was driven by emotive posters showing black-booted feet marching into Switzerland “Stop Mass Migration”.

Yesterday SVP leader Toni Brunner said he wanted quick action to implement migration quotas to cut the annual inward migration rate of 80,000. He predicted that the Swiss vote would feed into a wider debate ahead of EU parliamentary elections in May in which migration is likely to play a major role.

“Switzerland is playing the role of a pioneer for the whole of Europe now,” said Mr Brunner. “EU open borders, in their current form, will have to be discussed.” Already yesterday Germany’s eurosceptic “Alternative für Deutschland”, contesting the EU elections for the first time, called for a similar migration referendum in Germany.

Votes to cap inward migration to Switzerland are not new. The first attempt in 1970 failed but still attracted 46 per cent support. One third of voters backed another attempt in 2000.

Sunday’s vote built on recent SVP successes backing the deportation of foreign criminals and a ban on mosque minarettes. Its long-running campaign against perceived threats from outside Switzerland has seen the SVP triple its electoral base since the 1990s. Party critics, and alarmed political opponents, accuse it of appealing to xenophobic instincts and of cultivating a culture of prosperity chauvinism.

The campaign ahead of Sunday’s vote was a very Swiss dialogue of the deaf. Almost all political parties, unions and businesses focused their referendum campaign on the economic card, pinning future Swiss prosperity on its multinationals being free to attract the best talent from abroad.

The SVP presented itself as the only party courageous enough to challenge the establishment, arguing that mass migration was responsible for an explosion in the cost of living and pressures on the country’s transport system.

Its campaign messages tapped into a feeling among some Swiss of being a stranger in one’s own land. It is a feeling that runs contrary to a deep-seated Swiss need to feel self-sufficient and, like the legendary William Tell, willing to defend itself if necessary from outside aggression.

An analysis of polling results showed Switzerland is a country divided. Support for migration limits was highest in areas where migration is lowest while big cities like Zürich, where migration and its side effects are most visible, rejected the initiative.

As the Swiss establishment licked its wounds yesterday, it portrayed Sunday’s latest experiment in direct democracy as a triumph of emotion over economics.

The mainstream media called the result a rejection of globalisation and a vote of no-confidence in Switzerland’s ever-closer union with the EU.

Zurich’s Tagesanzeiger conceded that problems flagged by the SVP in the referendum were real but that they “cannot be solved with ethnic and national borders”.

The Neue Zürcher Zeitung was more strident, calling the vote a “watershed” in Swiss history. “The inward-looking Switzerland was victorious,” it opined. “For a small, open and resource-poor economy, this is not a good sign.”

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