The Swiss may be known for neutrality, but when they showed themselves to be anything but neutral on the issue of immigration in a recent election, voting to impose limits on the number of non-Swiss who may enter the country seeking work, they might have shot themselves in the foot.
The relaxed immigration standards that went into effect 12 years ago as part of Switzerland’s agreements with the European Union have helped to fuel growth in the Swiss economy, allowing companies to bring in highly qualified workers that are essential to their businesses. Not only that, the acceptance of those relaxed standards was only a single condition among many agreements with the EU—to which Switzerland does not belong, but to which it sells 55% of its exports.
Because of the way the agreements were drawn up, voiding one provision among them invalidates them all, and the EU has already shown itself not to be pleased at Switzerland’s action. A bare two days after the vote, the EU put on hold a discussion of tying in Swiss utilities to the broader EU energy market.
That’s far from the only segment of the Swiss economy that could be affected by the vote, since agreements on transportation and commerce are also part of the overall package. And the Swiss Bankers Association has already expressed concern that the vote could restrict banks’ access to the available pool of trained staff.
While not all Swiss were in favor of restricting the number of immigrants to the country—the measure passed by 50.3%, and was carried by fewer than 20,000 votes—the country was split along rural/urban lines.
Business centers such as Basel, Geneva and Zurich voted against restriction; they need to import highly skilled workers to keep businesses thriving. However, in German-speaking rural cantons and in the Ticino region, where Italian is spoken—where concerns about housing availability and affordability and the drop in blue-collar wages are more prominent—the majority of votes were in favor of cutting the amount of competition for jobs, homes, and public benefits.
Concern about higher crime rates has also caused a number of Swiss to want to shut the door to free passage. In fact, the measure that passed also calls for curbs on asylum seekers and those who commute across Swiss borders, as well as providing preference to native Swiss workers over immigrants.
Of course, Switzerland is not the only country in the region to have reservations about unrestrained immigration. Austria, France and Italy have their own concerns about the influx of foreigners, but they are not so dependent on highly skilled immigrant workers as the Swiss, who play host to such international behemoths as Novartis and Roche in the drug market; Nestlé, the world’s largest food company; and financial giants such as UBS AG, Credit Suisse Group AG and Julius Baer Group Ltd. In Switzerland between 2010 and 2012, 69% of EU immigrants were classed as highly skilled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared with a rate of only 35% across the EU’s 28 member states.
It’s clear that the EU will not accept Switzerland’s backpedaling on immigration without a fight. European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen said after the results of the vote were announced, “Clearly this vote didn’t set the right tone for the start of negotiations on an inter-institutional accord that will govern relations between the EU and Switzerland.”
Individual EU member states aren’t thrilled, either, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier quoted saying, “Switzerland has to know that cherry picking in relations with the EU can’t be a lasting strategy.” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders agreed, saying, “We can’t work à la carte. They have to accept the entirety of the European accords.”