The February 2014 vote showed just how divided Swiss views on immigration are. While 50.3% voted for the proposal to stop mass immigration, 49.7% voted against it. A re-run could easily undo the result – it should be noted that an exact re-run is not possible under Swiss law.
While the amendment to the Swiss Federal constitution resulting from the vote is quite clear, what stopping mass immigration means in practice remains undefined.
The key problem is that Switzerland signed up to a bundle of reciprocal European Union (EU) agreements and some parts of these contravene the terms of the constitutional amendment on mass immigration. Brussels will not let Switzerland pick only the bits it wants and says it must take all or none, so Switzerland risks losing everything. Of greatest concern is the possibility of Swiss businesses losing unfettered access to the EU trade block and its pool of talent.
According to the terms of the constitutional amendment on immigration quotas, the Swiss government has three years from 9 February 2014 to produce detailed laws and renegotiate and adapt contravening international agreements.
This has left the Swiss government at an impasse, stuck between the will of Swiss voters and uncompromising EU officials. The clock is ticking because the Swiss government has spent a difficult year going nowhere and now has only until 9 February 2017 to agree a deal the EU. Without a deal it will be forced to reintroduce immigration quotas and helplessly watch EU agreements fall apart.
An initiative known as RASA – an acronym for “out of the dead end” in German, is gravely concerned by this possibility and thinks voters should have a last minute plan B if all negotiations with Brussels fail. In an interview with Tribune de Genève, Andreas Auer, a former professor of constitutional law at the University of Geneva and one of the initiative’s organisers, says he fears that Switzerland could still be at the same impasse in two years, when time has run out. He is convinced the country needs to start working on a plan B now before it is too late.
The RASA initiative is presently only a plan itself. To become reality it requires at least 100,000 signatures, the minimum required to launch a popular vote, which it expects to have by this autumn. Their plan is to have another referendum on the issue of immigration ready to go if all EU negotiations fail.
On the other hand RASA might have misread the public mood. A recent Vimentis survey shows that close to half, or 45%, of those polled would chose to reintroduce immigration quotas even if it meant the cancelation of EU bilateral treaties. Only 41% put preservation of the EU treaties ahead of immigration quotas, leaving 14% who were undecided.
In addition, the recent rise in the Swiss franc has added to fears of competition from cheaper EU workers, hardening the anti-immigration views of many.
All of this suggests that most Swiss voters believe they could live with an unraveling of the EU bilateral agreements and don’t want RASA’s plan B.
Only as this year’s autumn leaves start to fall will we get our first indication of whether Swiss voters are behind RASA’s plan. If by then RASA does not have enough signatures they will need to brave the cold Swiss winter months on the streets collecting more. At the same time the cold chill of uncertainty will continue to blow through the boardrooms of many Swiss companies.
A 5-step guide to Switzerland’s immigration changes (Le News – March 2015)
Swiss choose immigration quotas over EU bilaterals (Le News – February 2015)
RASA, the plan B initiative to save the bilaterals (Tribune de Genève – in French)
The RASA initiative (RASA’s website – in French)
RASA, a clear alternative to the chaos set off by 9 February 2014 (Domaine Public – in French)