European leaders strongly criticise Swiss vote on migrants

Access to science funding and Erasmus scheme could be affected, say officials

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier:  “The Swiss have just damaged themselves with this result.” Phpotograph: Reuters

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier: “The Swiss have just damaged themselves with this result.” Phpotograph: Reuters


Senior European figures strongly criticised Switzerland’s decision to vote for the reintroduction of quotas on EU migrants yesterday, warning Switzerland’s access to EU science funding and participation in the Erasmus scheme could be restricted.

While EU foreign ministers arrived in Brussels yesterday to discuss the situation in Ukraine and Syria as part of a scheduled foreign affairs meeting, most faced questions about the outcome of the Swiss referendum.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabiaus said the vote was “worrying,” adding the EU would review its relations with Switzerland.

His message was echoed by the German foreign minister.

“Cherry-picking with the EU is not a sustainable strategy,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. “The Swiss have just damaged themselves with this result. The fair co-operation we have had in the past with Switzerland also includes observing the central fundamental decisions taken by the EU.”

‘Disturbing’ result
Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore described the vote as “disturbing” and “very worrying,” linking the referendum result to a growing rise in anti-immigration sentiment across the EU.

“We have seen a growth in what I can only call an extreme-right agenda, which I can only call xenophobic,” he said, adding the free movement of people was a cornerstone of the union.

While insisting the European Commission would not tolerate a challenge to free movement rules, EU officials stressed the ball was now in Switzerland’s court, adding there was no immediate impact on bilateral agreements. The Swiss government is due to discuss the outcome of the referendum tomorrow in Bern.

“The vote as such has no immediate impact on our institutional architecture,” said one EU official “Until the time that we have in front of us some legislation which violates our agreements, the status quo shall prevail.”

However, with Switzerland due to apply the free movement agreement it has with the EU to Croatia, which joined the bloc in January, officials said any decision to postpone the agreement could have a knock-on effect on Switzerland’s access to the science and research funding programme, Horizon 2020, and the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme.

Relations between the EU and Switzerland are governed by seven separate but interconnected bilateral treaties which spell out specific arrangements governing areas such as air traffic control, public procurement, and education. Officials in Brussels warned that any change to free movement rules would trigger changes to the other bilateral agreements.

Switzerland and the EU had also been due to negotiate a new institutional agreement to govern relations between the two blocs.

While Sunday’s referendum saw a narrow majority of voters back a proposal to reintroduce limits on EU migrants 15 years after it signed up to free movement laws with the union, it did not specify what specific limit would be applied, potentially allowing the Swiss government some room for manoeuvre.

Like other non-EU countries such as Norway and Liechtenstein, Switzerland has remained outside the EU while maintaining close ties with the bloc.

Although it voted not to join the European Economic Area, Switzerland has a number of bilateral arrangements with the EU, including a 1999 agreement which sets out Switzerland’s adherence to free movement rules.

Sweep of xenophobia
With anti-immigration sentiment rising across the European Union, and likely to feature as a major policy issue in the forthcoming European elections, the Swiss vote has been seen as an unwelcome reminder of the depth of anti-migration feeling within the union itself.

The EU’s justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, was one of the most forthright in reacting to the Swiss vote. “The single market is not a Swiss cheese,” she said. “You cannot have a single market with holes in it.”