Despite a formal refusal of the European Union to make any special concessions on last February’s migration vote, Switzerland’s right-wing UDC party seems determined to push for even more curbs on foreigners.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s chief diplomat, has transmitted a letter to Bern agreed by the European Union’s 28 member countries that it cannot offer Switzerland any special deals on its bilateral accords with Brussels. As reported last week by Le Temps, the letter noted that it “could not take into consideration” Switzerland’s request to renegotiate the accords regarding the free movement of EU citizens and that it therefore had to “deny” it.
Bern formally made the request in early July based on the Swiss People’s Party (UDC) 9 February referendum, which passed with a narrow 50.3% margin, to restrict EU citizens’ access to Switzerland. Under Swiss law, the Federal Council, which does not agree with the referendum, has to implement its requirements by 2017. This would give Switzerland the option to decide who, and how many, EU nationals would have the right to live and work in the country.
For Brussels, Switzerland’s demand to impose quotas completely contradicts the spirit of the ALCP, the bilateral accord between Bern and the EU on the free movement of people. It would also undermine both the purpose and basis of all EU agreements with its member nations. While similar calls for migration curbs have been voiced in countries such as the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands, Brussels does not wish to offer an excuse for any EU member to demand the same.
The fact that the 9 February vote has already caused numerous problems for Switzerland, such as the EU’s cancelling of the prestigious Erasmus university exchange programme and a possible reneging on the over €1 billion pledge to the EPFL Brain Project in Geneva, the UDC seems determined to move ahead with even further restrictions, according to the German-language Sonntags Zeitung.
Much to the anger of the liberal and left-wing Swiss political parties, the right-wingers are now seeking a new popular referendum to curb the right of asylum seekers to enter Switzerland via another EU member country. The initiative is being specifically aimed at boat refugees and migrants from Africa transiting Italy and other Mediterranean countries.
The UDC would also like to see applicants interned in closed refugee centres. Finally, asylum seekers would have no right to appeal, which prolongs the deportation process. If rejected, they would be deported immediately. “Whoever is a real refugee will seek asylum in the first country they reach,” UDC spokesperson Adrian Amstutz told the Sonntags Zeitung.
While the Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that refugee rights have been steadily eroded by many governments worldwide, Switzerland has been regarded as relatively fair in comparison. At the same time, the Swiss voted 78% in favour of additional asylum restraints in a June 2013 referendum, largely with regard to fast-tracking procedures and limiting social benefits.
The proposed new approach, however, is seen by many as going too far and a threat to the Swiss humanitarian tradition. It would basically only enable asylum seekers to apply if they arrive by air. This itself would prove difficult, given that most airlines tend to refuse anyone on board without an appropriate visa.
According to Green parliamentarian Ueli Leuenberger from Geneva, the UDC lacks any form of respect. “Right in the Syrian crisis, it wants to launch a hardline anti-asylum initiative. Just as happened during the 1998 Balkans crisis,” he said. The Swiss Office of Migration has reported a 10% rise in asylum requests over the past trimester and is expecting 24,000 new applicants for 2014, many of them from the Middle East.
The UDC has always said that it favours “real” refugees as opposed to economic migrants but critics see the proposed changes as imposing severe restrictions on those with genuine fears. For UDC vice-president Claude-Alain Voiblet, however, this is not the case. The party has nothing against genuine asylum seekers, he reiterated. At the same time, Voiblet noted, once they come to Switzerland, they are unlikely to return home. “It is far too easy to enter our country via Greece and Italy which close their eyes,” he said.