Christophe Blocher, vice-president of Switzerland’s right-wing UDC party, has indicated that he is prepared to compromise on the controversial 9 February, 2014, referendum that demands quotas on mass immigration from Europe. In an interview last Sunday with the German-language SonntagsZeitung, the Zurich politician said that he was open to exploring more subtle approaches, such as taxing companies that employ foreigners as well as EU nationals in Switzerland.
“If it were possible to reduce immigration with a better system than the introduction of quotas,” he told the paper, “then we would not reject such discussion.”
As political analysts point out, however, the reality is that such a tax, which was proposed by the Geneva-based think tank, Avenir Suisse, would not only prove discriminatory but would be unacceptable under EU rules. While some political parties might like the idea, it is doubtful that both Swiss and international corporations would even consider a proposal that seeks to hinder the hiring of the best people possible, regardless of nationality. As Patrick Aebischer, president of École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) recently noted, Switzerland must be able to recruit “the most qualified to stay ahead.”
The reality is that Swiss companies and industry, such as hotels, tourism and agriculture, have made it perfectly clear over the past eight months that any labour restrictions would severely harm the country’s economic viability. They would also oppose more taxes.
According to Swiss broadcaster Emmanuelle Jacquet, Blocher realises this and is now putting pressure on his own party to accept that the February initiative might not work and that for many the issue is a complete waste of time. The EU already has made its position known in that it will not accept any change in the bilateral agreements. A compromise might permit a form of the anti-immigration initiative to survive while at the same time protect the Swiss-EU accords. “It is therefore in Blocher’s own political interest to start singing another tune. It might not be the best solution for him, but it may be the only one,” she said.
As Jacquet and others note, Blocher now finds himself in deep water given that Bern may legally not be able to embrace the original intent of the referendum without scuppering its hard-negotiated bilateral relations with Brussels. According to the Swiss constitution, the referendum, which was largely rejected by Geneva, Zurich, Basel and other main cities, needs to be brought into law within three years of the vote.
Proposed changes will therefore have to be drafted by the end of this year if the Swiss parliament is to debate the initiative in its 2015 autumn session. If a draft is not produced and the parliament is unable to come to an agreement, then it will be up to the Federal Council in Bern to offer a decision. The latter, which is strongly opposed the vote, but considers resolving it a priority, already has been seeking ways of respecting the February initiative without going against its current EU policy.
For Jakob Kellenberger, who was chief Swiss negotiator for the country’s first round of bilateral talks with the EU, Switzerland has no choice but to remain on good terms with Brussels. This is crucial for Switzerland’s future given that the EU and its member states represent “the world’s largest economic and trade market, not only with regard to commerce, but also services,” he maintains. As former president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, he also noted that the EU represents more than half of the planet’s development and humanitarian donor capacity.
Kellenberger, who is author of the just-published book Wo Liegt die Schweiz? Gedanken zum Verhältnis CH-EU (Where is Switzerland’s role? Thoughts about Swiss-EU relations), the country’s future may also lie with EU membership, a process pursued by Bern from 1991 until 2005 when a people’s referendum made it clear that the government should halt the process. For Switzerland to move forward, Kellenberger argues in an oped in Tuesday’s Neue Zurcher Zeitung, the country needs to “overturn” the 9 February vote and then proceed with bilateralism in a manner that is “acceptable to both sides.”
As if to underline the need for resolving the current political imbroglio, Bern and Brussels this week signed an agreement regarding corporate taxation and security following a10-year dispute over fiscal relations. In return, the EU has promised to lift retaliatory measures against Switzerland. “This allows us to concentrate now on other questions and issues,” said Federal Councillor Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, referring to the ability of Swiss banks and insurance companies to operate on a level playing field within the EU. “It is important that from now on the rules be the same for everyone.”