Last week Swiss federal councillor Simonetta Sommaruga walked out of parliament after being harshly criticised by members of the Swiss people’s party (UDC/SVP) during a debate about extending the free movement of people to Croatia.
Under the terms of the European Union agreement on the free movement of people, Switzerland is required to extend access to the citizens of Croatia.
Dismissing objections from the UDC, parliament went ahead and voted on the subject with 62 voting against the motion and 120 voting for it, hoping the move would be seen as a show of goodwill that might help with discussions in Brussels, currently on hold until Britain’s EU vote on 23 June 2016.
The UDC reacted strongly to the move, deeming it incompatible with the constitutional amendment to reduce mass immigration, accepted by a slim majority of Swiss voters on 9 February 2014. Zurich UDC member Roger Köppel, said the federal council held the same position after the vote and changed its mind only after pressure from Brussels. Then he launched a personal attack on Simonetta Sommaruga. “I am amazed by the frivolity with which you have dismissed the constitution. Since 9 February 2014 we have had a clause in the constitution, totally devoid of ambiguity, that says no to free movement” he snapped. “Not long after 9 February, you yourself deemed any extension of free movement of people to Croatia anti-constitutional” he said. “The same federal councillor now says that this article no longer violates the constitution, just because we have rolled over after pressure from the EU” he thundered.
Roger Köppel then directly attacked the federal councillor for her stance on asylum. “I know that you don’t much like a spade being called a spade. You prefer to speak of approval processes rather than expropriation when you commandeer people’s apartments for young men that you brought from Gambia, Eritrea and Somalia as asylum seekers”.
After this, federal councillor Simonetta Sommaruga walked out.
Geneva UDC member Yves Nidegger, also criticised the government. “On 15 February 2014, the federal council was right not to sign the treaty with Croatia, it was constitutionally correct” he declared. “Nothing has changed. The free movement of people died on the evening of 9 February 2014”.
“We have a choice, but everything has a price” said Tiana Moser (PVL/ZH). The bilateral agreements come as a package. There is no reason to discriminate against the Croates by refusing them free movement, putting at risk the bilateral agreements and excluding Switzerland from the Horizon 2020 european research programme, supported by all parties except the UDC.
The free movement of people has made a large contribution to economic growth and the low rate of unemployment. This could be detrimental to Swiss workers if it creates issues for cantons close to EU borders, added Manuel Tornare (PS/GE). In addition, he thinks a deal was negotiated with the EU, and Switzerland must deliver on its promises. “We must stop playing cat and mouse with the EU. It’s frustrating for Swiss and those in Brussels”.
The federal council hopes to agree a shared understanding of the safeguard clause related to free movement with Brussels this summer, which would allow for immigration limits. This parliamentary green light does not for the time being contravene the constitution and should help gain approval for the safeguard clause between now and February 2017, the deadline for implementing the 9 February 2014 amendments.
The EU did not appreciate the Swiss federal council’s blocking of the extension of free movement of people to Croatia after the 2014 vote. It suspended Switzerland’s involvement in Horizon 2020, the Erasmus student exchange programme and the MEDIA programme. The federal council managed to limit the damage by paying CHF 45 million in planned aid to Croatia, and announcing it would respect free movement in the absence of an agreement.