GENEVA The European Union has warned that Switzerland’s narrow vote (50.3%) on 9 February to curb immigration could seriously impede economic relations with the 28-member community. Since the EU is the country’s main trading partner, this outcome could have a dire impact on business and jobs, a view widely shared by the main cities and backbone industries. The Swiss People’s Party (UDC) position could also open a trashcan of worms with regard to other countries with constituencies favouring similar curbs on immigration.
According to EU ambassador Richard Jones, much depends on how Switzerland intends to implement the referendum’s requirements. “No member state is ready to draw a line on the freedom of movement,” Jones told the Tribune de Genève. However, if Switzerland did proceed in a manner unacceptable to European norms, he warned, this could provoke repercussions, including the loss of subsidies, such as the annual €50 million provided to Geneva University. Another EU representative added that Europe cannot afford special cases. “If we did, then other countries might seek similar arrangements,” he noted. “People are getting fed up with Switzerland’s constant demands for special status.” Possibly as a result of the vote, EU-Swiss negotiations on a cross-border electricity agreement appear to have been frozen.
Quotas could also affect the estimated 430,000 Swiss living and working in the EU. The same goes for frontaliers. Cities such as Geneva, Basel and Lugano rely heavily on outside labour to run their industries and public services. UDC vice president Luzi Stamm told RTS that the frontalier policy should be determined at cantonal level. He also stated that farmers could keep foreign labourers but without families.
According to some Swiss, the vote, which found its broadest support in the more conservative parts of German-speaking Switzerland, represents a combination of nationalism, fear and reluctance to embrace change. The Italian-speaking Ticino also backed it, but for different reasons. This includes feeling ignored by the rest of Switzerland, but also concerned by the growing influx of foreigners.
The irony, however, is that most problems associated with immigration are found in Switzerland’s major cities. Yet rural Swiss who supported the initiative benefit from the thriving economy. Some commentators now suggest that quotas should be lower for those areas with a strong “yes” vote, while Geneva and Basel have larger quotas. Stamm dismissed this as ridiculous. When asked about institutions like the CHUV hospital with 40% foreign staff, he said Swiss in their 60s or retired could replace them. Fellow UDC politician, Christoph Blocher, who said Brussels needs to know “that the people have spoken”, also lambasted the Suisses Romands for refusing to support the initiative. Some French speakers suggest that Geneva and Vaud should reach their own accords with the EU, an indication of a broadening of Switzerland’s linguistic divide, the “Röschtigraben”.