22nd Oct 2016

EU warns Switzerland after anti-migrant vote

Swiss voters on Sunday (9 February) backed a call to cap migration from EU countries - a move which could trigger the exclusion of the wealthy Alpine country from the EU internal market.

The vote passed by a razor-thin majority of 50.3 percent, official results say.

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  • Some 300,000 Germans live in the neighbouring country (Photo: lucijanblagonic)

The result mandates the Swiss government to negotiate, in the coming three years, migration "contingents" for EU citizens, other foreign students and workers, and refugees.

The move risks unravelling a Swiss-EU pact on people’s freedom of movement, which came into force 12 years ago as part of wider-ranging EU accords and which could be terminated en bloc if the referendum result is transposed into Swiss legislation.

"This is a turning point, a change of system with far-reaching consequences for Switzerland," Swiss justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga told journalists in Bern.

The European Commission said in a statement it will "examine" the potential consequences once the Swiss government makes clear what it plans to do.

EU commission spokesman Olivier Bailly also told Swiss journalists on Sunday that a renegotiation of free movement accord to include "contingents" is out of the question.

"Freedom of circulation is non-negotiable. You cannot negotiate freedom. Either it is applied to all persons or to nobody," he said.

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding issued a similar warning.

"The four fundamental freedoms - free movement of people, goods, capital and services - are not separable. The single market is not a Swiss cheese. You cannot have a single market with holes in it,” she told the Financial Times.

Initiated by the right-wing and populist Swiss People's Party, the referendum reflects growing unease in rich European countries about immigration from poorer EU states.

The British government is highly vocal on the issue, while last month’s "Politbarometer” survey in Germany says Germans see it as the most important subject on the political agenda.

The breakdown of the Swiss vote sheds light on the nature of the anti-immigrant feeling, however: The cantons with the most immigrants voted against the initiative.

For his part, German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble deplored the Swiss result.

“It will cause a lot of trouble for Switzerland,” he told German public broadcaster ARD.

He added that the anti-immigration mood cannot be easily dismissed, however. “It shows, of course, to some extent that in this globalised world people are increasingly uneasy about an unlimited freedom of movement. I think we should all take this seriously,” he said.

Estonian President Toomas Ilves noted that EU reaction itself shows bias.

Switzerland in 2012 already introduced restrictions for workers from “new” member states. But “the EU simply did nothing about it," Ilves said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the business community in Switzerland has expressed concern over the implications of the vote.

"Explanatory and constructive talks with the EU are needed urgently," the Swiss Banking Association said after the result came out.

Up to 80,000 migrants come yearly to Switzerland, with a large proportion of German citizens deciding to settle in the neighbouring, German-speaking country. Some 300,000 out of a total Swiss population of 8 million are Germans.

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