GENEVA The proposed Ecopop referendum on 30 November ostensibly claims to be an effort to limit Switzerland’s rising population and to preserve its natural resources by restricting foreign immigration to 0.2 per cent a year over three years.
Backed by a bizarre mix of individual greens, socialists and right-wingers, it also seeks to appeal to ordinary Swiss concerned by rampant building construction, the rise of house prices and rents allegedly goaded on by foreigners, and the need to return to a more viable and authentically Swiss society. Furthermore, it would like to see 10 per cent of the government’s development budget dedicated to family planning or population control in the Third World.
According to Pascal Junod, president of the Geneva branch of ASIN (Action for an Independent Switzerland) and a supporter of the initiative, Ecopop represents what a majority of Swiss would like, notably “a real path for the future.” He also bitterly criticized the mainstream parties for creating an atmosphere of “fear” and promoting “the spectre of isolation” if the referendum were to pass, in the minds of the people.
The reality, however, is that Ecopop’s proposed changes are not dealing with the problems at hand. As one Swiss commentator noted, while clothing itself in environmental terminology, the initiative is little more than “a discriminatory, if not racist approach” for dealing with the so-called “immigration issue”. It is also regarded as an “eco-extension” of the UDC’s successful 9 February vote, which now legally requires Bern to limit bilateral agreements with the European Union, including immigration quotas.
Brussels, however, has made it clear that it will not consider a renegotiation of any bilateral deals, particularly with regard to the free movement of labour.
Not unlike the February vote, Ecopop fails to take into account Switzerland’s own current economic situation. With the EU representing this country’s principal trading partner, most Swiss industries ranging from pharma and tourism to watches, agriculture and high-tech repeatedly explain that they cannot survive without foreign labour, skills and expertise. Basically, they point out, Switzerland would lose its cutting edge in a highly competitive corporate world. The economy would ultimately collapse relegating Switzerland to the position of a second-rate industrial nation.
As it is, foreign companies are already picking up and leaving the country because of the constant barrage of negative messaging put out by such popular initiatives. The very migrants, too, whether top-level managers, researchers or operational specialists, that Switzerland needs are increasingly thinking twice about relocating to this country.
Last month, nearly 500 Lake Geneva enterprises voiced their concern about threatened curbs on their ability to choose the best workers possible, regardless of nationality. Many have said that they will not expand their operations if they cannot obtain the right people. Some Swiss companies are even exploring the possibilities of moving abroad, while several have threatened to outsource part of their operations elsewhere, such as India. This means less jobs – and tax income – for Switzerland.
Ecopop’s claim to respond to Switzerland’s urgent need to make more intelligent use of its natural resources, such as water, comes across as a valid concern for many Swiss. This includes implementing more effective renewable energy policies, particularly in light of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change. But the initiative’s proposed immigration limits are hardly likely to reduce public consumption. If anything, observers note, many of the foreign researchers now working with organizations such as the Federal Polytechnique Institute (EPFL) in Lausanne are specifically involved in exploring more efficient means of renewable energy sources, such as solar. As one EPFL collaborator noted, “they are the ones helping put Switzerland on the global map as a leading, high-tech innovator.”
Finally, Ecopop’s proposal to halt people in developing countries from breeding comes across as neo-colonial and arrogant. As social politician Manuel Tornare points out, “this will actually torpedo current efforts to fight against global poverty.”
For the Bern government, the Ecopop initiative is highly unwelcome. Having learned a lesson from its complacency prior to the February vote, it is urging Swiss, including the media, to speak out against it. This is already resulting in a surge of analysis and reporting in most mainstream media, such as the Tribune de Geneve, Le Temps and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. In addition, there appears to be far more debate on Swiss radio and television.
Edward Girardet, Managing Editor. firstname.lastname@example.org
Update: This vote was rejected by a majority of 74.1%. Voting number by canton can be seen here.