On 9 February 2014, Swiss voters decided by a slim majority of 50.3% to adopt new rules on immigration. The new rules now form part of the Swiss Federal constitution. The changes are broad and short on specifics. For this reason the adoption of new legislation implementing the changes is critical for clarifying the exact scope and limits of the constitutional amendments.
Here is a simple 5-step guide to the constitutional changes.
1. Swiss immigration to be restricted by quotas
Switzerland must be free to independently manage the immigration of foreign nationals and it must set annual immigration limits or quotas. Permanent residency, family reunification and access to social benefits can be restricted.
2. Quotas will apply to all foreign citizens
All foreign citizens including asylum seekers and cross-border commuters will be subject to annual immigration quotas.
3. Work permits only issued after meeting economic tests
Residence permits for foreign workers will only be issued after considering Switzerland’s economic interests, employers’ needs and the capacity of workers to integrate and support themselves financially.
4. Incompatible international agreements must be changed
Switzerland cannot be bound by any international agreements that interfere with these new immigration rules. In particular, international agreements that impinge on immigration quotas must be renegotiated and adapted. In addition, no new contravening agreements can be signed.
The Graduate Institute Geneva estimates that there are no fewer than 58 incompatible treaties.
Of particular note are the Agreements on the Free Movement of People concluded with the European Community and European Free Trade Association. In addition, immigration quotas are also contrary to the Geneva Convention related to Refugees, the United Nations (UN) Convention against torture, and the European Convention of Human Rights.
Many international organisations such as the UN and CERN, that have agreements exempting them from immigration restrictions could also be affected by the changes.
5. The Swiss government has three years to implement the changes
The amendments to the constitution have two parts. The first is article 121a, which sets out the changes. The second is article 197 which provides a three-year transition period for the Swiss government to produce the detailed laws required to implement the changes, while renegotiating and adapting any incompatible international agreements.
If, after three years, the legislation is incomplete, the Federal Council (Swiss cabinet) will be required to bring the constitutional changes into force by decree, on 9 February 2017. Any remaining contravening international agreements will be overridden.
Constitutional amendments (Swiss Confederation website – in French)
The Swiss Vote against Mass Immigration and International Law (The Graduate Institute Geneva – in English)
Swiss immigration vote re-run (Le News – March 2015)