Swiss migration vote unease continues ahead of EU talks

Dazed voters amazed and appalled at fuss they have caused

A Swiss National Flag waves over the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

A Swiss National Flag waves over the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images


St Patrick’s Day is three weeks away, but a very Irish atmosphere has already descended on Switzerland. For anyone who remembers the fallout from Ireland’s first Nice and Lisbon Treaty votes, the reaction to the Swiss decision to limit inward migration is like deja vu all over again.

On one side the shell-shocked political and business establishment, on the other a jubilant gang of self-styled political rebels. From the wings, accusatory gazes and soundbites from EU neighbours and, centre stage, dazed Swiss voters feeling amazed and appalled at the fuss they have caused.

A narrow majority – 50.3 per cent – backed an initiative by the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to curb “mass immigration”. The government in Bern opposed the initiative but is now obliged to act on it. For this non-EU country it means reinstating a migration quota system that curtails a bilateral agreement with Brussels that includes a free movement provision.

The SVP ran an effective campaign arguing that its country is, quite simply, full. With a population of more than eight million, Switzerland has a quarter more people living in half the space of the island of Ireland. The battle for affordable living space is fierce; the pressure on infrastructure is visible. The majority of voters backed the SVP’s argument that, with a quarter of the population non-Swiss and net migration of 80,000 annually, unchecked migration was no longer an option.

“Everyone is rushing into this country,” said Christoph Blocher, a billionaire industrialist and SVP leading light, after the vote. “Switzerland hasn’t decided that no foreigners can come, just the ones that are needed – and not the others.”

The vote exposed old Swiss divisions: support was highest among conservative German speakers in the east and in the Italian-speaking Ticino region to the south; western, French-speaking Switzerland around Geneva was opposed. A rural-urban divide was clearly visible, too, with support for quotas often in inverse proportion to the numbers of migrants living in an area.

Swiss political philosopher Georg Kohler argues that the greatest divide – the one exploited by the SVP – is a conservative-liberal divide over Switzerland’s national sovereignty in a globalised world.

‘Helvetica hardliners’
One-third of the population, classic SVP voters he dubs “Helvetica hardliners”, are happy to pull up the drawbridge. Another third thinks globalisation has made such isolationism impossible and pooled sovereignty, with the EU if need be, a guarantor of prosperity. “The final third are sleepwalkers,” said Prof Kohler. “The SVP convinced them that migration was the source of problems arising from globalisation.”

With 26 per cent political support, the SVP is the most popular party thanks to its reverse engineering the Swiss psyche. This nation is a federation of regions that joined forces rather than yield to larger neighbours. SVP warnings of a tractor beam dragging Switzerland into the EU triggers an deep-seated resistance that, critics say, blots out economic rationale.

“We aren’t in the EU, we are an independent country that can decide its own affairs,” said Elisabeth Neuer, a 52-year-old SVP voter, as she sipped her coffee in Zürich central station. “We’re not a nation of racists – we try to help people where we can, but there have to be limits on migration. We don’t suffer from helper syndrome.”

The SVP has used its grasp of the zeitgeist to trigger a series of referendums – to deport criminal foreigners or ban minarets on mosques – that, to outsider eyes, resemble a stop-motion documentary on angst. Swiss minority groups worry the SVP’s political success is based on scapegoating them. A final poster push in the migration vote showed a woman in a burka, last seen in the minaret campaign, alongside a graph showing Muslim migration to Switzerland rocketing off the scale.

“The fear of Islamisation is an all-purpose tool the SVP uses to mobilise people and, in this case, achieve their own goal of distance from the EU,” says Abdel Azziz Qaasim Illi, spokesman for Switzerland’s Central Islamic Council.

Many of Switzerland’s 300,000-strong Germans have felt similarly targeted by SVP campaigns. A German academic announced his resignation from a Zürich college this week, describing the migration vote the last straw after years tolerating verbal abuse and slashed tyres from the Swiss. His frustration is widespread.

“I get negative remarks every day like ‘go back where you came from’ but I don’t let them bother me,” said Sophia Trautmann (25), a German woman working in Zürich for five years. “You have these attitudes in every country, but the fear of migration here is far more out in the open.”

Brussels axe
Years of worry about migration have, in recent days, been overshadowed by a new fear: the consequences of their referendum. The Brussels axe fell swiftly, and in quick succession, on Swiss participation in EU research programmes and cinema grants. Swiss students returned from their semester break to learn that the result had left their Erasmus exchange year in doubt.

“I still have nightmares about the election result,” said Leon (22), a chemistry student at the University of Bern. “I think most people didn’t realise the migration vote would effect EU relations. That debate is only happening now.”

The triumphant SVP is now on the defensive, insisting the migration element of Swiss-EU bilateral agreements can be renegotiated. EU officials insist the deal is a house of cards: removing one element collapses the entire legal structure.

Bern officials facing into uncertain talks hope most EU capitals will eschew the doctrinaire Brussels reaction and back Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pragmatic approach. But even if negotiations commence, a compromise needs approval of all 28 EU members. Many with fresh memories of their own accession process may be cool on backing a special Swiss deal. Croatian hearts have already hardened after Bern put on hold, pending a new migration regime, the free movement of its citizens.

Though still feeling their way forward, Swiss officials say they’re unlikely to follow the Irish path of a referendum rerun with Brussels assurances. With a three-year window to implement the voter will, Bern hopes to present new legislation by June, get it through parliament by year-end and put it to voters the following spring.

One crumb of comfort for negotiators: after effectively voting to cancel its migration policy with the EU, a new poll suggests three-quarters of Swiss voters favour retaining existing relations with the bloc. Squaring that circle is the challenge ahead but some seasoned observers suggest the looming debate may have a positive effect, forcing a final showdown, after years of stand-off, between Switzerland’s liberal pro-EU and conservative anti-EU camps.

“The SVP win on migration could yet prove a pyrrhic victory if the people eventually agree to retain close EU ties,” said Georg Kohler.

Even before that debate, Swiss voters have lobbed a charge into the EU’s own migration debate, something extremist parties are hoping to capitalise on in upcoming European elections.

“Pressure is growing all over the EU on this issue,” said Elisabeth Schneider-Schneiter of Switzerland’s Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP), which opposed migration limits. “Perhaps a request from a non-EU member like us to discuss the issue – rather than a demand for change from an EU member – might allow a more relaxed debate about how to tackle something that affects us all.”