Swiss set to rebuff right-wing attack on EU immigration

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Abd el-Rahman Shatawi at an intensive care unit in an Israeli hospitalAlex Levac

About 36% of the care personnel in Switzerland come from other countries. © Keystone/Christian Beutler

Voters on Sunday will have the final say on a proposal to scrap a major immigration accord with the European Union. The latest right-wing initiative looks set to be rejected.

This content was published on September 26, 2020 – 17:00Urs Geiser

The proposal wants the Swiss government to shelve the two-decade-old agreement on the free movement of people and regain full control of the country’s immigration policy.

The political right argues that the free movement policy – which allows EU citizens to work in Switzerland and vice-versa – has led to overpopulation, strains on the environment and infrastructure, and exploitation of the social security system.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which launched the initiative, claims it is all getting “too much” and that the government must negotiate a new deal with Brussels.

“The free movement policy is a failed experiment,” says People’s Party figurehead Christoph Blocher. He argues that the political establishment lied to the people when it downplayed the impact of immigration ahead of previous votes on the same issue.

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The People’s Party alleges that free movement has led to an influx of one million people in the past 13 years.

Prosperity vs independence

A broad alliance of political parties, the government, parliament, the business community as well as trade unions and civil society groups – including the expatriate Swiss community – have come out against the immigration curbs.

They say scrapping the free movement accord would jeopardise Switzerland’s economic prosperity and labour rights as well as scupper a set of six other bilateral accords on trade, transport and research in force since 2002.

Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter has warned of disastrous consequences for Switzerland, saying a no vote would be “worse than Brexit”.

Currently, more than 120 bilateral agreements – including the free movement deal – regulate relations with the EU, Switzerland’s main trading partner.

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According to Keller-Sutter, the vote amounts to a fundamental question of whether or not Switzerland wants to continue this policy of bilateral deals.

“I prefer the status quo to a situation of legal insecurity,” she said.

Opponents of the initiative have also warned that strained relations with Brussels would add more pressure on businesses and lead to a shortage of skilled workers in Switzerland.

They argue the EU will not be willing to give up the free movement of people policy, a key principle of the 27-nation bloc – allegations dismissed by campaigners from the Swiss People’s Party.

Supporters trailing

Latest opinion polls found that supporters of the idea were trailing more than 30 percentage points behind opponents, following campaigns that have been less heated than expected.

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While the political right may still be able to convince its grassroots to support the initiative at the ballot box, it can’t count on additional backing coming from other circles. All this could lead to a two-thirds majority coming out against the immigration curbs.

Pollsters haven’t ruled out that supporters in some areas, notably in canton Ticino – a region traditionally more sceptical of close ties with the EU and immigration from neighbouring Italy – could have the upper hand.

But voters in French-speaking Switzerland, which tends to be more politically open-minded, as well as urban voters in the majority German-speaking part of the country, are likely to condemn the fate of the initiative.

Political scientists attribute the perceived lack of intensity in campaigning to an altered political, social and economic context from five years ago, when voters narrowly accepted a similar proposal to curb immigration from the EU.

This time around, the Covid-19 pandemic has dominated headlines while the refugee crisis is no longer as present as it was in 2014.

The pandemic also led to the vote being postponed by several months, while hygiene rules have narrowed the scope of physical campaigning.

Saturation

Pollsters also say that Swiss voters may have become increasingly tired of debates about immigration and relations with the EU.

Over the years, citizens have been asked at least a dozen times about either boosting ties with the EU or reversing integration with Europe. The immigration issue has accounted for more than 40 votes in half a century.

A landmark vote in 1992 ended in a victory for the conservatives who rejected membership of the European Economic Area – a half-way house towards joining the EU. This result paved the way for a series of high-profile bilateral accords at the turn of the millennium.

But the government’s foreign policy suffered another setback in 2014 when voters approved a right-wing proposal to re-introduce quotas for immigrants from the EU.

Parliament’s subsequent insistence on an implementation of the restrictions which was compatible with international accords angered even further Switzerland’s political right, which is often driven by anti-establishment sentiments. After collecting the necessary signatures two years ago, they forced the vote that will now take place on Sunday.

Regardless of the outcome, the controversy over Switzerland’s Europe policy is likely to continue with fierce debates in store about a so-called “umbrella” accord with the EU.

Votes September 27, 2020

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