Geneva’s MP for the conservative Swiss People’s Party (UDC), which launched the 9 February referendum against mass immigration, tried to reassure a gathering of internationals organized by Le News on 3 April: “The end of the world has not come,” said Yves Nidegger.
In his introductory remarks, Ed Girardet, the moderator and Le News’ Managing Editor said that Le News “decided to have this discussion because many in the international community in Switzerland and across the border in France are not particularly aware of what is going on”. Many don’t know how the vote may affect the international community and those who have lived here for a long time.
The more than 230 people present listened intently to the debate among the three panelists, who included Frédérique Reeb-Landry, President of Groupement des Entreprises Multinationales (GEM), which represents 30,000 jobs in the Lake Geneva region. It was she who addressed what was probably their main concern. “For the time being the situation is status quo for those who have a work permit,” she said.
Reeb-Landry went on to note, “Today one out of two Swiss francs is earned abroad, and we need to keep these constructive relations with foreign countries, especially our neighbours.” For Nidegger that is the crux of the issue. In his party’s opinion, Switzerland is paying too much attention to the EU. “Switzerland is not a member of the EU and there is no mechanism for the Swiss to decide who comes to their country. It’s Europe versus the rest of the world. I am fighting to get permits for qualified workers from around the world not just Europe. More than Polish plumbers, we need Indian computer scientists.”
Professor Vincent Chetail, director of the Global Migration Centre at the Graduate Institute, where the conference was held, reminded the audience that EU citizens make up about 60% of Switzerland’s foreign population. And while officials of UN organizations may be exempt under Swiss law, Chetail said that foreign employees of international sports federations and retired UN officials living in Switzerland could be affected.
But Nidegger stuck to his point that only new EU immigrants will be directly affected because non-EU country applications come under a quota system that has been in effect since the 1960s. But this quota system for other countries has been impacted by the necessity of Switzerland to abide by the EU treaty on open borders. “The point is that we are a good neighbour but we are NOT a member of the EU.”
Chetail took exception to that. “It is up to Switzerland to find a solution. It is not an EU problem. We cannot say Switzerland ratified a treaty and then refuses to abide by it. The referendum was written in extremely vague terms which no doubt helped in its adoption.”
The vagueness of the referendum may also explain the unexpected results of an informal Le News reader poll. As Girardet noted at the beginning of the conference, “More than one third of foreigners we questioned supported the vote against immigration”.
Reeb-Landry attempted to encourage those present to look forward. “The point is the Swiss people have made their decision to control immigration and now we need to discuss how to implement this decision.” She also warned that collaboration between businesses and the political establishment was vital if the measures to stop mass immigration were to be implemented successfully. “Will you cooperate with us?” she asked Nidegger directly. His response: “absolutely”.