Swiss vote stokes embers of growing right-wing opposition to immigration

Vote may offer Brussels an opportunity to shape debate about Britain’s membership

Cars queue at the border crossing between France and Switzerland on February 10th. Swiss citizens have voted in favour of measures to curb immigration from EU countries in a move that will require Swiss officials to renegotiate several treaties with the EU. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Cars queue at the border crossing between France and Switzerland on February 10th. Swiss citizens have voted in favour of measures to curb immigration from EU countries in a move that will require Swiss officials to renegotiate several treaties with the EU. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 01:00

This week the neutral, picturesque state of Switzerland caused quite a stir in Brussels after it voted to reintroduce curbs on EU migrants. While the referendum passed by a whisker, the turnout of 56 per cent was one of the highest in decades.

Despite its reputation as a tolerant, open country, Swiss unease with the concept of immigration has been growing of late. Last year the government introduced a temporary limit on some EU workers, invoking a “safeguard clause” in its 1999 agreement with the EU which allows temporary caps on work permits if annual immigration exceeds a certain number.

Sunday’s referendum was a different matter – the decision to move outside the terms of the 1999 bilateral agreement by reintroducing quotas on migrants has received a stern response from EU.

The Swiss government announced yesterday it would devise an “implementation plan” by June, and a draft law by year-end, while opening exploratory talks with the EU in the meantime.

But the Swiss vote has wider ramifications for the EU. Switzerland’s decision to limit the number of immigrants can be seen as a gauge of a deep unease about immigration across Europe.

As the Swiss government licked its wounds on Monday, the vote elicited a gleeful response from anti-immigration parties across Europe, which cheered on Switzerland for exercising its democratic right.

Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), said the vote was “wonderful news” for freedom lovers throughout Europe. “A wise and strong Switzerland has stood up to the bullying and threats of the unelected bureaucrats of Brussels.”

Austria’s far-right FPO party said Austria would vote the same way if given the choice, while the France’s National Front praised Switzerland’s “lucidity.”

The European Commission was forced this week to counter suggestions that the vote was a portent of things to come in May’s European elections, in which candidates running on an anti-immigration agenda are expected to make strong gains. Freedom of movement is a key pillar of the EU and is non-negotiable, officials and foreign ministers stressed.

Unfortunately, many EU citizens don’t agree, with British prime minister David Cameron arguing that the free movement rules are in need of reform and will be at the heart of Britain’s plan to renegotiate its membership terms with the European Union.

The impact of the Swiss vote on the Conservative Party’s planned referendum on EU membership may prove to be one of the most important fall-outs from the Swiss vote.

Despite EU officials’ insistence that there is no association between the two, the Swiss referendum has rattled the EU.

In the year since Cameron announced his EU renegotiation plan, an attitude of relative indifference has prevailed in Brussels.

The prospect of a “Brexit” is frequently brushed off by those in official circles, comforted by the quiet belief that ultimately British voters would opt to stay within Europe should the issue reach a referendum.

The Swiss vote has challenged that perception. The fact that a business-savvy country that has traditionally welcomed a high number of foreigners, and is well attuned to the economic benefits of the single market, is willing to gamble its relationship with the EU may serve as a wake-up call for Brussels.

Equally, the ensuing negotiations between Bern and Brussels will be closely watched in London.

Switzerland’s relationship with the EU is governed by a web of seven interconnected bilateral agreements that would be affected if the free movement principle was undermined.

While Britain, unlike Switzerland, is a member of the EU, the forthcoming negotiations could nonetheless be seen as a blueprint for Britain’s discussions with Brussels as it attempts to renegotiate the terms of its membership before going to a plebiscite.

Ironically, the Swiss referendum may offer Brussels the opportunity to shape the imminent debate about Britain’s EU membership.

The reality that Switzerland needs the EU more than the EU needs Switzerland puts Brussels in a strong position in its forthcoming discussions with Bern, making it more likely to take a tough line.

Despite its reputation for consensus and compromise, the European Union now has a real chance to set out the rules on EU membership ahead of the debate with Britain.

By insisting that the principle of freedom of movement is non-negotiable, it could send a strong message to Britain that an “a la carte” EU membership is not an option.

In the meantime, the British public is likely to keep a close eye on the next steps for Switzerland, in order to glean what the real consequences of a British exit from the EU would be.


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