Once more to the ballot box!
The Swiss are voting – once again – in a referendum to limit the number of foreigners. Even if a majority of the 5.15 million voters oppose it, it’s an issue that won’t go away. Most citizens remain pragmatic about the economic necessity of the Swiss-EU accords, but the conservative Swiss People’s Party (UDC) blame outsiders for the country’s alleged woes: unemployment, the housing shortage, crime, overpopulation… Not unlike right-wing elements in the UK, the US, Scandinavia and other countries that have benefited from immigration, they are ignoring the realities at hand.
Switzerland, like every European nation, is an immigrant society. Just look at my 13-year-old son’s history book leading up to the founding of the Confederation, and beyond. The Swiss couldn’t be more mixed: Celtic, Roman, Aleman, Franc, Etruscan, Burgundian, French, Italian… So when people talk about keeping foreigners out, it’s like calling for a halt in history.
As one of the world’s most successful countries, Switzerland has long benefited from outsiders. Tourism, agriculture, pharma and other industries would collapse without them. Many cannot find Swiss able, or willing, to do the jobs. It’s doubtful, too, whether anyone would really wish to return to the disrespectful “Gastarbeiter” days of the past: You can work here as long as we need you; get out when we don’t.
The UDC does have a point about overpopulation. But the solution does not lie in limiting foreigners. Quite the opposite. Why not share a joint vision with our neighbours on how to develop our frontier regions? This includes dropping the concept of a border and developing more imaginative thinking for dealing with housing, transport, education, health care and labour in a manner that benefits all.
Next Sunday’s immigration vote may reflect Swiss concerns that the country is changing too fast.
Publicly, many Swiss blame inadequate housing, job loss and traffic congestion on the flood of newcomers. Privately they admit that what they most blame foreigners for is the decline in standards of honesty, cleanliness and manners. In a survey for RTS TV, half of those questioned said that immigration also contributed to increased crime and a decline in the quality of life.
It may seem strange to observers that the 9 February initiative proposed by the right-wing People’s Party (UDC) is not aimed at asylum seekers from less developed countries, but rather more at fellow Europeans. The Federal Statistics Office has noted that Switzerland’s population has grown by an average of 74,000 each year since 2007, with Italians and Germans being the largest immigrant groups, followed by the French. And foreigners from such countries may indeed be partly to blame for the large hole in the Swiss honour system, when they use public transport without paying – as are quite a few Swiss. However, both foreigners and Swiss must share responsibility for the present housing shortage and the rise in rents and wages.
A report by the International Labour Organization indicates that between 2007 and 2012 foreigners accounted for over one quarter of the Swiss workforce. Businesses have repeatedly said that immigrants are often doing jobs the Swiss do not want to do. Institutions and companies frequently say they need foreigners, particularly skilled ones, because they can’t find enough qualified Swiss. Both hoteliers and farmers maintain that it would prove impossible to fill jobs without foreigners. In fact, the Swiss unemployment rate remains low, according to the Secretariat for Economic Affairs, “except among the immigrant population”.
With regard to the housing shortage, an analysis by Vincent Kaufmann of EPFL Lausanne noted that while foreigners seeking housing might indeed aggravate the current shortage, “the real cause is our inability to build and our extremely complex regulations”. As for the complaint that foreigners take advantage of Switzerland’s welfare benefits, Marcel Suter, president of the Association of Cantonal Migration Authorities, said that this is not possible. “Only those immigrants from the EU/EFTA countries who have contract employment have the right to obtain social assistance and unemployment insurance if they lose their job in Switzerland.”
When it comes to AVS contributions, Suter said that immigrants from these countries “are on average younger than the indigenous population,” and thus contribute to a more equitable relationship between those who are working and those who have retired, as “immigrants pay more contributions into the first pillar of social security”.
Switzerland’s tolerance for foreigners has been severely tested since it approved the EU’s Free Movement of Persons Agreement in 2002. This was followed by an amendment in 2004 that added 10 new East-European members. Then in a 2009 referendum, the Swiss voted to extend the agreement even further to include Romania and Bulgaria. With this in mind, perhaps Sunday’s initiative is not so surprising.