How does Switzerland really feel about its European neighbors? If last weekend’s landmark vote to curb immigration is any indication, there’s not a lot of love. One popular campaign poster in favor of the so-called “stop mass immigration” measure depicted cartoon rats dressed as an Italian worker, a Roma or gypsy criminal and a prominent Italian former finance minister fighting over Swiss cheese. Another showed black crows pecking at a cutout of Switzerland. Not exactly subtle.
In voting that ended Sunday, the Swiss narrowly passed the referendum that will strictly limit legal immigration and worker visas into the country. Because Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, they can do as they please, including enforcing strict border controls that will keep anyone else out of the wealthy nation. The ruling government, the majority of parliament and many business leaders had unsuccessfully campaigned against it, citing the fact that immigration quotas are in violation of nearly every bilateral pact between Switzerland and its European business partners and neighbors. The initiative, which was put forth by Switzerland’s right-wing “People’s Party,” won by just 50.3 percent across the country. But in regions bordering Italy, including Ticino, Switzerland’s only Italian-language region, the measure won by an overwhelming 78 percent. The new measure, which will automatically become a law that has to be enforced within three years, is particularly bad news for the 60,000 Italian workers who cross the Swiss border to work every day. They will risk losing their jobs.
Since 2009, Switzerland’s population has grown by a rate of one percent a year because of immigration, according to Switzerland’s Federal Bureau of Migration. In 2011 and 2012, when many of Europe’s southern regions were sliding into recession because of the economic crisis, the number of immigrations from Greece jumped by 44.8 percent, those from Spain increased by 36.2 percent and those immigrating to Switzerland from Italy rose by 28 percent. Switzerland now has the largest percentage of non-nationals in all of Europe, comprising 23.3 percent of the total population of just eight million. Pierre Rusconi, a vocal member of the Swiss People’s Party, told The Daily Beast that the initiative won because the Swiss are afraid of being overrun by foreigners. “It was a campaign about the things the people are suffering from and the fear of cultural dilution,” he said.
Switzerland has just 3.2 percent unemployment compared to the European average of 10.9 percent. Rusconi says that the influx of immigrants is putting a serious strain on the country’s fine-tuned infrastructure, including the housing market and welfare system. He says that the reason Ticino canton voted so strongly in favor of the measure is because of the particular pressure the Italian immigrants put on the system, including a recent increase in tax evasion and black-market labor. In January, Italy and Switzerland began talks on cross-border transparency on the matter.
Now Switzerland will have to wait for the European Union’s reaction. So far it has been terse. Talks between the European Commission and their Swiss counterparts for a cross-border electricity agreement were immediately halted on Monday after the weekend vote. German chancellor Angela Merkel said through a spokesman that the vote creates “substantial problems” for German-Swiss relations. Equal dismay was expressed by Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who told reporters that “cherry picking with the EU is not a sustainable strategy.” Italy’s foreign minister Emma Bonino didn’t mince words either. “The impact is very worrying, both with respect to Italy and to other agreements with the European Union,” she said.
Most of the country’s bilateral agreements with European nations hinge on freedom of movement in and out of Switzerland. The new law will curtail that movement and call for greater border controls. The new measure will cap all types of immigration, from seasonal workers to those applying for political asylum, which will put additional pressure on Switzerland’s neighbors. It will also limit whether seasonal workers can bring their families with them.
But it may also have an impact on how Europeans treat the Swiss going forward. Writing for Deutsche Welle, economic exppert Bernd Riegert condemns Switzerland’s decision as narrow minded “The EU should be consistent in upcoming negotiations with Switzerland. If there is to be no more freedom of movement of human beings, then there should be no free movement of goods and capital. Swiss bankers would like to manage the funds of rich Europeans—but the people, well, please stay out,” he says. “That’s a non-starter.”